Bindingthe Spenders

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON

The arguments against a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets are various and, cumulatively, almost conclusive. Almost. The main arguments are:

The Constitution should be amended rarely and reluctantly. Constitutionalizing fiscal policy is a dubious undertaking. Unless carefully crafted, such an amendment might instead be a constant driver of tax increases. A carefully crafted amendment that minimizes this risk could not pass until Republicans have two- thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, which they have not had since 1871.

There is, however, one sufficient argument for a balanced-budget amendment. It is: George Mason University's James Buchanan.

This Nobel laureate economist, who died last month at 93, pioneered the "public choice" school of analysis. Public choice theory applies economic analysis -- essentially, the study of how incentives influence behavior -- to politics.

Public choice analysis began in the 1960s. It demystified politics by puncturing the grand illusion that nourishes government growth. It is the fiction that elected politicians and government administrators are more nobly motivated, unselfish and disinterested than are persons acting in the private sector.

Buchanan extended the idea of the profit motive to the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, two groups seeking to maximize power the way many people in the private sector maximize monetary profits. Public-sector actors often do this by transactions with private factions trying to get government to give them benefits, such as appropriations or tax preferences.

Critics have dismissed as mere anti-government ideology the injection by public choice theory of realism into the analysis of politics. Such critics cling to the theory that in politics and government, people do not behave as people do in markets -- they supposedly are not responsive to incentives for personal aggrandizement. …