I wondered in a comment there, and in a comment over at Anti-Dismal, whether the political second-best argument might well not justify a rather wide range of inefficient status quo positions. Paul takes me to task, but I think he's conflating my extension of Seamus's argument with my actual worry about potential use of the political second best argument against change.
I'm certainly not against political second best arguments in particular application. I tend to think, for example, that the New Zealand government has sufficiently proven its utter inability to avoid expropriating Telecom's investments in broadband infrastructure, through mandated sharing with competitors, that there's little chance of substantial private investment in fiber absent government making that investment directly.
Does the political second best argument hold in the power example? First, what do voters think about government ownership or regulation of electricity generation? Well, we have some data on this from the NZES. 40% of respondents want to have full government ownership of generation and distribution; 18% want "mixed" ownership (the current situation); 27% want a private but regulated industry, and 4.5% want a private industry (rest didn't know). So, it looks like voters are strongly against having a private, unregulated industry. That suggests that a private, unregulated industry is not a political equilibrium. Even the current "mixed" ownership situation isn't particularly stable.
Now, some interesting covariates. Probability of supporting full government ownership is significantly affected by:
- Economic thinking (-): a standard deviation increase in economic thinking reduces support for full government ownership by 8%
- Political ignorance (-): a standard deviation increase in political ignorance reduces support by 4%
- Listening to National Radio (+): 3.3%
- Being male (+): increases support 12%
I'd expect a private but strongly regulated system to be an equilibrium; I can't see a private, unregulated system being a political equilibrium. If I could push a button that would privatize the electricity system while insulating it against stupid regulations, I'd push that button. Unfortunately, such buttons don't exist.
Now, is this a generalized argument in favour of any political status quo? I don't think so. I think there's reasonable evidence consistent with that privatization would result in a highly regulated system, and I can buy that such a system could be worse than what we now have. Paul says this may make me a Marxist, but I'd say rather Coasean.
I do worry that in some cases, building popular support for economically efficient policies requires government to be the first-mover in adopting currently unpopular moves and then building support for the shift by highlighting the successes of the reforms. Economists haven't a theory of the path to equilibrium, and much less a theory of the path from inefficient but politically stable equilibria to efficient stable equilibria that avoid worse-case outcomes. Hard problems.
In any case, if it takes substantial political capital to make any of these kinds of moves, why not start with ones that are more likely to lead to stable and desirable equilibria?