However, when I look at much of what I buy, I see that much of what I buy is decent stuff and not terribly expensive
To listen to some libertarians and right-wingers, you'd think that government is nothing but theft and murder and power-grabbing, and all it can do is spread misery.
However, I can see that a lot of government services are at least decent and genuinely useful.
What's going on? After all, the leftists and the libertarians are pointing to some real incentives and processes.
People I've floated these ideas to have suggested that government keeps business from being as awful as it might be. Government does exert *some* pressure on price and quality (not always in the direction one would wish--see price supports), but there isn't nearly enough government to *make* companies offer stuff that's fit to buy.
I believe that what's mostly going on for both business and government is a combination of the desire to do things well (distributed through all levels of the organizations) and habit/tradition/inertia which can lead to defaults of accomodating the people one is dealing with.
If my theory is correct, you want organizations which are somewhat responisive to incentives, but complete responiveness to simple incentives is *not* what you want. See this article about Walmart--they keep squeezing their suppliers till some of the suppliers lower quality or go out of business.
Here's my prediction about Walmart (I was wrong about the election, but that isn't going to stop me)--they'll keep squeezing their suppliers until Walmart becomes known as a place to buy crap, and it will gradually go under itself. Maybe they can prevent this by focusing on quality as well as price, but that would take a huge change in company culture and it's hard to imagine doing it successfully.
On the government side, you want them to care about elections, but you can't afford to have that be the only thing.
There's a bit in Gregory Bateson about how living systems never try to maximize just one thing.