The Robust Political Economy of School Lunches

Matthew Yglesias complains about the lack of power of US government to implement policy without interest group interference. He contrasts the story of the Finnish government passing simple and neutral legislation mandating nutritionally balanced meals in public schools with the experience in the US where the dairy and carrot (!) lobbies are a powerful force.

It was a crazy story not because the nutritional guidelines are crazy. Nor because the nutritional guidelines are perfect. This still actually leaves a lot of variance depending on exactly what’s served. But what’s crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

It’s very hard to imagine anything like that happening in the United States, where something as basic as the food pyramid winds up being a locus for interest-group politics.

He thinks that US political institutions are a barrier to good policymaking:

But I think there’s a big challenge for progressives here. And not just with regard to school lunch, but with regard to the whole thing. There are certain ends that can only be accomplished by state action. But state action is only really tolerable if you can actually make the government work well and an awful lot of our basic institutions just don’t work very well. At the same time, the medium-term policy frontiers increasingly focus on questions of public health and environmental security that have a hefty technical element. A lot of the argument for universal health care hinges on the fact that, in principle, comprehensive reform could deliver a much more efficient system. But will it actually deliver such a system, or will it just deliver whatever happens to get lobbied for?  

I agree. The US system with its many veto points makes it harder for well-intentioned and wise government to make good policy. The original rationale for the US system, however, was precisely to limit the power of government. A constitutional structure with many veto points gives rise to bargaining problems and gives interest groups more influence, thus making it hard to make good policy. The same factors also make it hard to make sweepingly bad policy. As James M. Buchanan has argued, constitutional constraints on government power are like an insurance policy: they prevent particularly bad policy, but come at the cost of also preventing some good policies. This cost is like an insurance premium.

Buchanan’s idea of “robust political economy”* is that we should not evaluate institutions on how they behave under best-case assumptions (e.g. wise and benevolent government), or even under our best estimate of which assumptions actually hold, but also under worst-case assumptions (e.g. incompetent and selfish government**). American politics has its problems, to be sure, but the very factors which paralyse the system and facilitate corruption also protect against tyranny of the worst kind.  

*Buchanan, along with Geoff Brennan, discuss the idea in many places. For mine, the best discussion is in chapter 4 of The Reason of Rules.

**Though this paper by Crampton and Farrant shows that given selfish planners, incompetence would be a good thing.)


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