Posts tagged ‘public choice theory’

Public Choice and "Privilege"

A key thrust of Nancy MacLean's book on the great Koch / Buchanan / libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy is that public choice theory is all about protecting and cementing elite privilege under the law.  This is actually exactly opposite of how I have always viewed public choice theory -- public choice theory tends to show how well-intentioned "public service" programs tend to get co-opted by a few powerful people for their own benefit.  See "ethanol mandates" or "steel tariffs" or "beautician licensing" or any number of other programs.  But I am not conversant enough to really make this case well.  Fortunately, Steven Horwitz (pdf) has done it in his powerful critique of MacLean's book.

The intellectual error that is most frustrating, however, is her understanding of the relationship between public choice theory and questions of power and privilege. As Munger (2018) points out in his review, MacLean is an unreconstructed majoritarian. She genuinely believes, at least in this book, that the majority should always be able to enact its preferences and that constitutional constraints on majority rule are ways of protecting the power and privilege of wealthy white males. That’s the source of Democracy in Chains as her title and her argument that public choice theory is a tool of the powerful elite. As Munger also observes, normally such a view would be seen as a strawman as no serious political scientist believes it, not to mention that no democracy in the world lacks constitutional constraints on majorities. In addition, one must presume that a progressive like MacLean thinks Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, and  Obergefell v. Hodges, not to mention Brown, were all decided correctly, even though all of them put local democracies in chains, and in some cases, thwarted the expressed preferences of a majority of Americans.

For public choice theory, constitutions protect the citizens from two forms of tyranny: tyrannies of the majority when they wish to violate rights and tyrannies of coalitions of minorities who wish to use the state to redirect resources to themselves by taking advantage of the logic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Buchanan’s political vision is, in Peter Boettke’s words, a world without discrimination and domination. Constitutional constraints, for Buchanan, are a central way of ensuring that democracy actually protects rights by preventing the powerful from exploiting the powerless and that political decisions involve the consent of all. Constitutional constraints make democracy work for all citizens – they do not put it in chains.

When MacLean argues that public choice is a tool to protect privilege, she gets it exactly backward. Public choice shows us how those with the power to influence the political process can use that power to create and protect privilege for themselves at the expense of the rest of the citizenry. Public choice’s analysis of rent-seeking and politics as exchange enables us to strip off the mask of bogus “public interest” explanations and see a great deal of political activity as socially destructive exploitation of the least well-off. To borrow a bit from the left’s rhetoric: public choice is better seen as a tool of resistance to oligarchy than a defense thereof. It helps us understand why corporate welfare remains so common even as so many see it as a problem. Public choice also helps to understand the growth of the military-industrial complex and challenges public interest explanations of that growth. One can tell similar stories about immigration policy and a number of other issues of that concern modern progressives. Public choice theory sees the battles over Uber and Lyft as the powerful government-licensed taxi companies fighting to protect their monopoly privileges and profits against upstart entrepreneurs better meeting the wants of the public. This provides an excellent illustration of how public choice theory can explain political outcomes, and why the theory is useful in understanding how the powerful can victimize the less powerful. Public choice theory, properly understood, is a tool of critical thinking that enables us to deconstruct political rhetoric to see the underlying forces at work that are allowing those with wealth and access to power to use politics to acquire and protect their privileges and profits

As Arnold Kling might say, and Horowitz himself posits in different words, libertarians spend so much time obsessing over the freedom-coercion political axis that they miss out on ways to engage those on the Oppressor-Oppressed axis.  Public choice theory has a lot to offer Progressives, as it explains a lot about how well-meaning legislation with progressive intent is often co-opted by powerful groups to enrich themselves.  Sure a lot of public choice theory is used by libertarians to say, essentially, burn the whole government to the ground; but there is a lot from my experience in public choice literature that should speak to good government progressives, academic work using public choice to think about better designing programs to more closely achieve their objectives.

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.

Materials I Use to Teach My 90-Minute Economic Class

I teach one 90-minute class a year in the senior economics elective at my kids' high school.  The teacher gives me a pretty free ability to cover whatever I wish.

Rather than trying to cover some school of thought, I instead focus the class on the seen and unseen (starting with quotes from Bastiat and Hazlitt).  We have about 12 economic problems, where we start with the seen, and then introduce the unseen.  We start with the classic broken window as the first one.

I teach the class with role play.  I give every student a couple of business cards with their role typed on them.  When I call on them I have them advocate for their role.  I have started to give a small food reward at the end of class to the student who best gets into character -- this has helped the role play immensely.   Let's take one example I do towards the end of the class involving price gouging after a hurricane.

We begin with the governor of Florida who has just signed an anti-price-gouging law.  We talk about how everyone hates price-gouging after a disaster.  What could be worse, right?

We then talk about a woman who spends most of her time at home, but rushes out to fill her gas tank right after the storm hits.  She has to wait in line for gas for 2 hours because everyone else has done the same as she, racing to the station, but she doesn't mind because she doesn't have anything else to do and feels better.  If asked if she would have topped off her tank if the price jumped to $6 from $3, she says no way.

Then we have an owner of a roofing company enter the fray.  His men are working 14 hours a day to put roofs on houses.  He is making a lot of money, and doing a lot of good as well.  Nothing is more important to people than fixing the roof before the next rain.  He may be the most important man in Florida at that moment.  But he can't keep up with demand, and worse, his guys are having to sit for 2 hours at a time to fill up their company trucks, when they should be repairing roofs.   He would gladly pay $10 a gallon if he could just keep his men on the job and not in gas stations.

So at this point we discuss "fairness".  It seems fair not to raise prices to "take advantage" of a disaster.  But is it fair to allocate gas away from the busiest and most productive whose time is most valuable to the people who are least productive and have the lowest value for their time?  We discuss how price caps shift rationing from price to queuing, and the people who get the product shift from those who most value it to those who assign the lowest value to their own time.

Finally, we discuss a guy in Georgia who has a tanker of gas he was going to send to a station in Atlanta.  They need the gas more in Florida, but they aren't paying more for it under the new price-gouging law, and so with his higher costs of driving all the way to Florida vs. Atlanta he is going to sell the gas in Atlanta.  If the price of gas in Florida were to rise to $6, he would send his truck of gas to Florida in a heartbeat.

This is the kind of discussion we have.   We will end up in a debate, with kids pointing out all kinds of things -- eg poor people who have a life or death need and might be shut out at $6.  We don't try to resolve things, but want them to understand there are unseen consequences to actions like price-gouging laws that must be considered along with the seen.  They may end up dismissing the unseen as less important than the seen, but it should not be ignored.

If anyone finds themselves in the same situation as me needing to teach a group (it could be adults as well) you are welcome to use my materials.  I actually print the business cards on Avery two-sided business card paper.  Attached are separate files for the front and back of cards as well as a sort of discussion key I use to guide the conversation.  We get into things, at least tangentially, like public choice theory and concentrated benefits / dispersed costs.

If you want to use the materials, you are welcome to email me with questions.  But these are all public domain so help yourself without permission.  (By the way, in trying to match the front to the back of each card in your mind, remember there is a mirroring effect, so the text on the right card on the backs in any given row goes with the front of the card on the left of the same row in the other file).

economics class discussion guide

economics class biz cards front

economics class biz cards back

Public Choice Theory and State Pensions

Good stuff from Josh Barro.  He discusses pension issues and pension accounting in depth, but this struck me as the key takeaway

Another major flaw is inherent in the very nature of pensions: They allow lawmakers to give valuable benefits to public workers (and to placate their unions) today without ever having to deal with the ugly future consequences. Handing out a wage increase, after all, generally requires coming up with a significant amount of money in this year’s budget, which can pose enormous financial (not to mention political) difficulties. Sweetening pension benefits, on the other hand, achieves much the same political end—and while it does increase a pension system’s unfunded liability, that cost is spread across pension payments that will be made for many years. In this way, legislators can please public employees now and leave it to future legislatures to clean up the mess....

Defined-benefit pension plans thus provide lawmakers with both the motive and the means to seriously abuse state finances. All over the country, state lawmakers face enormous temptation to appease government workers now, and let someone else figure out how to pay the bill in the future. At the same time, the complex accounting rules that govern defined-benefit pensions make it easy to cover up the costs of the scheme.

The only way out I see is not just a current fix (which can and often is undone in better times) but some kind of procedural fix, ala what CA Prop 13 did for property taxes, permanently binding the hands of legislators on these issues.  In addition, we really need to see the GASB adopt government pension accounting rules that parallel private standards, though I am not holding my breath on that one.  Of course the ultimate solution is to do what nearly every private company has done -- get out of the defined benefit pension business, and substitute a 401k with employer contributions and/or matching.

Public Choice Theory

I asked Don Boudreaux his opinion of the best primer on public choice theory, a topic of interest to many libertarians.  He recommended William Mitchell & Randy Simmons, Beyond Politics (1994).  I have ordered a used copy from Amazon and will give my thoughts on it once I have had a chance to peruse it.

Conservatives and Police

Radley Balko is having a back and forth with a guest blogger at Patterico over the drug war and violent crime.  Balko is always worth checking out, because while many of us bloggers may call ourselves the new media, we are mostly just a bunch of op-ed pages.  Balko is one of the few major bloggers out there doing real reporting.

One part of the discussion caught my attention:

Second, JRM leaves out the rest of my discussion of police militarization in the piece, which includes the very real, not-made-up statistic based on police department surveys done by Peter Kraska showing the number of SWAT deployments in the U.S. jumping from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to 50,000 or more per year today. Most of these SWAT deployments are to serve drug warrants. JRM can disagree, but my point is that even if these raids don't produce a single gun shot (though we know that's far from the case), that's a disturbing trend. The image of state agents dressed in black, kicking down doors, and wresting people out of bed at gunpoint in order to police nonviolent crimes just isn't one I associated with a free society (oddly enough, some prominent conservatives agree, at least when other countries do it).

Perhaps because I read this as my inbox is filled with Minuteman missives (I don't know how they got the impression I was somehow sympathetic to their cause) asking me to send a valentine to agents Compean and Ramos, but I sometimes really wonder about conservatives.

Conservatives distrust government and government bureaucrats.  Many understand public choice theory.  Many understand how faulty incentives within government can turn even good, smart people into stupid bad actors.

So I am left to wonder why conservatives feel ever so much better about the situation when the government employee is given a gun, and the unique authority to use it on the citizenry?