The question of who will exercise political power also arises in the context of social democracy. Democratic structures necessarily give power to some over others and how this power is exercised may depend upon who exercises it. As Geoffrey Brennan and James M. Buchanan put the question in their book The Reason of Rules: ‘If institutions are such as to permit a selected number of persons to exercise discretionary powers over others, what sort of persons should be predicted to occupy these positions?’ (p. 64).
Brennan and Buchanan argued that political power may be understood, using an analogy from economic theory, as a monopoly right that is auctioned to the highest bidder. We should expect the person willing to bid the most for that monopoly right to be the person who expects to gain the most from it. That person is likely to be the one prepared to exploit it most ruthlessly: ‘positions of political power will tend to attract those persons who place higher values on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political offices’ (p. 64).
In other words, we should expect that the people most willing to work to attain political office will be those who expect to gain the most from holding it. Those who would seek elected office in order to pursue other-regarding ends may not be sufficiently motivated to invest large amounts of time and effort to win political power. Those who desire to wield power over others for personal gain, on the other hand, may only be able to realise this end by personally achieving political power, creating a powerful incentive to devote substantial resources to securing elected office.
It may also be the case that the benefits of political power will be greatest for those whose views or preferences are at most variance with those of the majority of the population. An individual who desires an outcome different from the outcomes that most other people would choose is likely to gain the most from acquiring the monopoly right to exercise political power over others. For this reason Brennan and Buchanan argued that we should expect that ‘political institutions will be populated by individuals whose interests will conflict with those of ordinary citizens’ (p. 64).
This analysis would seem to reinforce David Hume’s dictum that political institutions should be designed as if every person was a knave with no end other than his or her own private interests, even though we know that not all people behave knavishly. To design political institutions on the basis that those who hold political power will always be benevolent is too great a risk. Limits on the power of government, then, are an essential part of political settlements.