Posts tagged ‘James Buchanan’

For the Record, I Fear Pure Majoritarian Democracy as Well

One of the themes of Nancy Maclean's new book on James Buchanan as the evil genius behind a conspiracy to unravel democracy in this county.  In critiquing her critique, I meant to also make it clear that whatever Buchanan may have believed on the subject, I am certainly skeptical of pure majoritarian democracy.  For me, protection of individual rights is the role of government, and populist majoritarianism can easily conflict with this goal (this is not a new finding, we pretty much figured this out after Julius Caesar, if not before.  Here was a piece I wrote years ago I will repeat here:

Every Memorial Day, I am assaulted with various quotes from people thanking the military for fighting and dying for our right to vote.  I would bet that a depressing number of people in this country, when asked what their most important freedom was, or what made America great, would answer "the right to vote."

Now, don't get me wrong, the right to vote in a representative democracy is great and has proven a moderately effective (but not perfect) check on creeping statism.  A democracy, however, in and of itself can still be tyrannical.  After all, Hitler was voted into power in Germany, and without checks, majorities in a democracy would be free to vote away anything it wanted from the minority - their property, their liberty, even their life.   Even in the US, majorities vote to curtail the rights of minorities all the time, even when those minorities are not impinging on anyone else.  In the US today, 51% of the population have voted to take money and property of the other 49%.

In my mind, there are at least three founding principles of the United States that are far more important than the right to vote:

  • The Rule of Law. For about 99% of human history, political power has been exercised at the unchecked capricious whim of a few individuals.  The great innovation of western countries like the US, and before it England and the Netherlands, has been to subjugate the power of individuals to the rule of law.  Criminal justice, adjudication of disputes, contracts, etc. all operate based on a set of laws known to all in advance.

Today the rule of law actually faces a number of threats in this country.  One of the most important aspects of the rule of law is that legality (and illegality) can be objectively determined in a repeatable manner from written and well-understood rules.  Unfortunately, the massive regulatory and tax code structure in this country have created a set of rules that are subject to change and interpretation constantly at the whim of the regulatory body.  Every day, hundreds of people and companies find themselves facing penalties due to an arbitrary interpretation of obscure regulations (examples I have seen personally here).

  • Sanctity and Protection of Individual Rights.  Laws, though, can be changed.  In a democracy, with a strong rule of law, we could still legally pass a law that said, say, that no one is allowed to criticize or hurt the feelings of a white person.  What prevents such laws from getting passed (except at major universities) is a protection of freedom of speech, or, more broadly, a recognition that individuals have certain rights that no law or vote may take away.  These rights are typically outlined in a Constitution, but are not worth the paper they are written on unless a society has the desire and will, not to mention the political processes in place, to protect these rights and make the Constitution real.

Today, even in the US, we do a pretty mixed job of protecting individual rights, strongly protecting some (like free speech) while letting others, such as property rights or freedom of association, slide.

  • Government is our servant.  The central, really very new concept on which this country was founded is that an individual's rights do not flow from government, but are inherent to man.  That government in fact only makes sense to the extent that it is our servant in the defense of our rights, rather than as the vessel from which these rights grudgingly flow.

Statists of all stripes have tried to challenge this assumption over the last 100 years.   While their exact details have varied, every statist has tried to create some larger entity to which the individual should be subjugated:  the Proletariat, the common good, God, the master race.  They all hold in common that the government's job is to sacrifice one group to another.  A common approach among modern statists is to create a myriad of new non-rights to dilute and replace our fundamental rights as individuals.  These new non-rights, such as the "right" to health care, a job, education, or even recreation, for god sakes, are meaningless in a free society, as they can't exist unless one person is harnessed involuntarily to provide them to another person. These non-rights are the exact opposite of freedom, and in fact require enslavement and sacrifice of one group to another.

I will add that pretty much everyone, including likely Ms. Maclean, opposes majoritarian rule on many issues.  People's fear of dis-empowering the majority tends to be situational on individual issues.

Why SJW's Are the Worst Mystery Writers (Spoiler Alert: The Culprit is Always Racism)

A while back I wrote "Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender."

A classic example of this is Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains.  She has apparently detected the great conspiracy behind the modern Right, which according do her is a racist backlash against the civil rights movement.  And the person at the heart of this conspiracy is... economist James Buchanan?

For those who don't know, which is probably most of the folks in this country, Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of public choice theory.  If you are unfamiliar with this body of work, I encourage you to investigate it, but in short it analyzes government officials as self-interested and subject to all the same incentives as ordinary people.   This is in contrast to highly idealized analyses that consider government agents as perfectly serving the public and judges proposed government actions by their stated goals, rather than their likely operations as run by real human beings.  It was developed in part as a reaction to  market critics who would cite real world issues in complex markets and compare them to idealized results of hypothetical government regulations.  It tends to explain things like special interest politics, regulatory capture, cronyism, and rent-seeking much better than traditional, rosier theories of government.  For example

So the Progressive Left tends to hate public choice theory.  They have nearly infinite faith in government action and don't like to hear about its limitations.  So it is not surprising that MacLean would write a thoughtful, scholarly critique of public choice theory, backed by a variety of economic evidence.  HAH!  Just kidding.  This is 2017.  Academics in the social sciences, mostly on the Left, don't operate that way.  The only approach they know to refuting such a theory is to link it with racism.  And so that is what she attempts.  This is part of the summary from Amazon:

“[A] vibrant intellectual history of the radical right . . .” – The Atlantic

“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be” – NPR

“Riveting” – O, The Oprah Magazine (Top 20 Books to Read This Summer)

An explosive exposé of the right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution.

Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us.

Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan’s work in teaching others how to divide America into “makers” and “takers.” And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan’s strategy.

Hah, this is the Progressive Left, so you just knew the Kochs had to be implicated as well.  A couple of thoughts

  • My first response is:  if only.  It would be fabulous if, say, the Republican Party was constructed on top of the work of Buchanan and public choice theory. Alas, it is not
  • The links to racism the books rests on are simply a joke, but typical of the quality of public discourse today.  You see it all the time.  Coyote gave money to the Cato Institute.  Joe Racist and Jane Hatemonger also gave money to Cato.  So Coyote has been "linked" to these bad people, and therefor must believe everything they do.**
  • Yet another in a long line of books about how libertarians are plotting to enslave you by devolving power to the individual and leaving you alone
  • Don Boudreaux has been collecting a lot of links to critiques of the book.  Beyond the silly vast-right-wing-conspiracy level of scholarship, apparently MacLean edited a lot of the key quotes she uses in the book to essentially reverse their meaning.


** This is an aspect of Progressive thought today that I think is not discussed enough.  I used to make common cause with folks on the Left and the Right on individual issues.  This is becoming increasingly hard, particularly with the Progressive Left, because they tend to demand conformity with them on issues x, y, z before they will work with you on issue w.  I had to step down from a leadership role in an effort to legalize gay marriage in AZ because I did not agree with groups like HRC on things like climate change.  Progressives then assume everyone else is following this totalitarian principle, so if later I make common cause with the Right, say on school choice, I am branded as being anti-immigration.  That is silly, given what I have written, but to them actual words I have written are irrelevant -- what is important is that I did one thing one time on one issue with someone on the Right, so I am now branded with whatever political baggage the Right might have.