Bad Incentives, Bad Politicians

Glenn Reynolds’ latest column in USA Today rests on a clever insight:

Government officials are happy making and executing plans that affect the lives of millions, but when things go wrong, well … they’re willing to accept the responsibility, but they’re not willing to take the blame. What’s the difference? People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are “responsible,” do not. The blame, such as it is, winds up deflected on to The System, or something else suitably abstract.

But when you cut the linkage between outcomes and experience, you make learning much more difficult. When you were a toddler learning to walk, you fell down a lot. This was unpleasant: shocking, at least, and often painful. Thus, you learned to fall down a lot less often.

His proposed remedy:

I’d favor some changes that put accountability back in. First, I’d get rid of judicially created immunities. The Constitution itself creates only one kind of immunity, for members of Congress in speech and debate. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, courts have interpreted this grant of immunity, explicitly in the Constitution, more narrowly than the judicially created ones).

I’d also cut all payments to members of Congress whenever they haven’t passed a budget. If they can’t take care of that basic responsibility, why should they get paid? Likewise, I’d ban presidential travel when there’s not a budget. He can do his job from the White House.

I’m willing to consider other changes: Term limits that kick in whenever there’s a deficit for more than two years in a row. Limitations on civil-service protections to allow wronged citizens to get offending bureaucrats fired. Pay cuts for elected officials whenever inflation or unemployment are above a threshold.

I couldn’t get behind all of Reynolds’ proposals, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. What changes would you like to see implemented to hold public officials more accountable?