On page 290 of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes that in 1998

[Tyler] Cowen had published a new book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, which elaborated on old shibboleths from Ludwig von Mises.

The good people at Harvard University Press, publisher of Tyler’s 1998 book, must be distraught to learn from MacLean that Tyler’s book merely “elaborated on old shibboleths” from a long-dead Austrian economist.

Fortunately, the Harvard University Press crowd can breathe easily, for MacLean’s description of Tyler’s book is wholly inaccurate.

Nowhere in his book does Tyler mention Mises.  Why not?  There’s no doubt that Tyler has closely studied Mises’s works.  And there’s no doubt that Mises wrote about the connection between commerce and art.  And yet Tyler doesn’t mention Mises.  Perhaps Tyler absorbed Mises so deeply that he, Tyler, simply channeled Mises unawares.  Or perhaps Tyler simply forgot to mention the scholar on this point who MacLean asserts (with no real evidence, by the way) is the source of the views on commerce and art that Tyler develops in his 1998 book.  Or maybe Tyler intentionally failed to mention Mises, perhaps hoping to steal the glory that comes with being thought to be an original thinker!

No one who knows Tyler would believe either of these last two possibilities.  And MacLean offers no evidence that points to either of these explanations being valid.  Indeed, MacLean doesn’t even mention that Tyler doesn’t even mention Mises in the 1998 book.  So it’s an open question where she got the notion that Tyler’s 1998 book is just an ‘elaboration’ of Mises’s views on the subject.  (I have my suspicions about where MacLean got this notion, but I’ll keep these suspicions to myself.  Unlike the careless MacLean, I don’t report my suspicions as if they are facts.)

In the same footnote from which the above quotation is drawn, MacLean references Mises’s 1956 monograph, The Anti-capitalistic Mentality, but she offers neither explanation nor even page references.  In this short Mises tract there is a chapter (#3) titled “Literature Under Capitalism.”  This chapter and a section (“Materialism”) in chapter 4 are the only parts of this book that I can find that touch on the topic of Tyler’s 1998 book.  Here, Mises does say some things that overlap with the broad theme of Tyler’s book – namely, contrary to the claims and worries of critics such as John Ruskin, in commercial societies fine and high art continues to flourish even though a great deal of contemptible and even trashy ‘art’ is also produced.  But Mises doesn’t develop the thesis in any depth.  All of 19 short pages are devoted to this topic.

More fundamentally, Mises’s attitude is distinctly different from Tyler’s.  Unlike Mises, Tyler regards a great deal of popular literature, music, painting, architecture, and other expressions of human creativity to be genuinely good, and sometimes great, works of art.  While Mises recognized that the increasing prosperity of ordinary people prompt them often to improve their tastes and buy what Mises regarded to be genuinely good works of art (including in its industrial manifestations, such as in the design of furniture), Mises was far less willing that is Tyler to expand his opinion of what does indeed count as truly worthwhile works of art.  For example, here’s Mises [p. 31]:

Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines.  But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Con Grande della Scala.  It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.

Tyler would not so much deny the truth of what Mises says here as he would – and does! – argue that the new, innovative forms of artistic expression made possible by commercial society give rise to a great deal of new art forms that, if not recognized immediately as excellent, truly are excellent and will typically one day be recognized as such.  Tyler would also deny that ordinary people must somehow become graced with the discernment of famous artists and art critics in order for ordinary people, through their purchases in commercial markets, to support the production and distribution of genuinely excellent art.  Consider this passage from pages 6-7 of Tyler’s book [emphasis original to Welles]; Tyler’s mention of Welles is favorable:

Orson Welles argued for the supremacy of consumer opinion in judging aesthetic value.  He once said: “We must not forget the audience.  The audience votes by buying tickets.  An audience is more intelligent than the individuals who create their entertainment.  I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand.  The only problem is to interest them.  Once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.

The sources of inspiration that Tyler mentions in his 1998 book [on pages 12-13] include Samuel Johnson, Charles Perrault, Baldassare Castiglione, Condorcet, and, more recently, Camille Paglia, Herbert Gans, and the economist William Grampp.  I do not think that a mention of Mises would have been out of place here, but nor was any such mention called for.  Again, Mises’s discussion of these matters isn’t all that deep (which is not to say that it is mistaken) and Mises’s ideas about what is and isn’t good art were indeed very different from those of Tyler.  There is, in short, no reason to believe that Tyler was elaborating on a theme set by Mises and every reason to understand that Tyler’s exploration of the connections between commerce and art go vastly further than any such exploration that might be prompted even by the most generous reading of Mises’s words on this topic.

One thing is clear to a reader of Tyler’s 1998 book: it is a remarkably innovative, and deeply informed, application of the economic way of thinking to a wide variety of questions about the connections between commerce and art.  Most assuredly it is much, much more than a mere ‘elaboration’ on Mises’s, or anyone else’s, comments on this topic.  Tyler’s 1998 book is, in my opinion, his best.  For Nancy MacLean to ridicule it as she does borders on libelous.

I’ve featured some quotations from Tyler’s 1998 book here at Cafe Hayek.  For example, here’s one found on page 197:

By placing conservative culture at the top of their political agenda, the neo-conservatives risk losing their skepticism about big government.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

On page 290 of Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes the following:

[Tyler] Cowen’s first book, The Theory of Market Failure: A Critical Examination, was a collection of essays copublished by the Cato Institute and designed to refute the key argument for government intervention: that markets often fail. Offering tribute to public choice economics, it showcased nonscholars on the payrolls of three different Koch-funded nonprofits.

Wow!  Seems as though this book is filled with hack works by hack writers.  It must be a book devoted, in good part, to ‘showcasing’ nonscholars doing dirty work for evil oligarchs.

Let’s take a look at the “nonscholars” whose papers are collected in this book (listed below in order of appearance in the book) and where their papers originally appeared:

  • Tyler Cowen (at the time an assistant professor of economics at U.C.-Irvine) [publication original to this volume]
  • Paul Samuelson (professor of economics, MIT; first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Science) [Review of Economics and Statistics]
  • Francis Bator (professor of political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School) [Quarterly Journal of Economics]
  • Kenneth Goldin (professor of economics, Cal.-State at Fullerton) [Public Choice]
  • Earl Brubaker (professor of economics, Naval Postgraduate School) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Harold Demsetz (professor of economics, UCLA) [Journal of Law & Economic]
  • Andrew Schotter (associate professor of economics, NYU) [from Schotter’s 1981 Cambridge University Press book, The Economic Theory of Social Institutions]
  • Charles Tiebout (professor of economics till his 1969 death, University of Washington) [Journal of Political Economy]
  • James M. Buchanan (professor of economics, George Mason University; 1986 Nobel laureate) [Economica]
  • Carl Dahlman (economist, U.S. Dep’t. of Health and Human Services) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Robert Axelrod (professor of political science and public policy, University of Michigan) [from his highly regarded 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation]
  • Ronald Coase (professor of law, University of Chicago; 1991 Nobel laureate) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Steven N.S. Cheung (professor of economics, University of Hong Kong) [Journal of Law & Economics]
  • Robert Poole (president of the Reason Foundation) [from the 1980 book Cutting Back City Hall]
  • Robert J. Smith (Competitive Enterprise Institute) [publication original to this volume]
  • Jack High (professor of economics, George Mason University) and Jerome Ellig (Citizens for a Sound Economy) [publication original to this volume]

Looks like a pretty scholarly group to me.  This list plainly belies MacLean’s description of the 1993 Cowen-edited volume as one that “showcased nonscholars.”  Anyone who knows anything about the market-failure literature knows that most of these contributors are very well-known and highly respected scholars.

Of course, not all contributors are as well-known as Buchanan, Coase, and Samuelson.  And, indeed, the least well-known of the group (Poole, Smith, and Ellig) are the ones connected to “Koch-funded nonprofits.”  But this fact does not mean that these three men are “nonscholars.”  (I don’t know about Bob Poole or Robert Smith, but I know that Jerry Ellig has a PhD in economics, from GMU, and has written several scholarly journal articles [one with me, long ago, in the Journal of Air Law & Commerce]).  Moreover, anyone who reads their contributions to this volume will see clearly that these are papers written by genuine scholars.  And does the placement of the papers by Poole, Smith, and Ellig suggest that Tyler “showcased” these papers?  Does the array of contributors, and their order of appearance in this collection, justify MacLean’s description of the book as one that “showcased nonscholars”?  I think the answer is no, but you, dear reader, judge for yourself.

(I believe that the “Koch-funded nonprofits” that MacLean has in mind are Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation.  Authors associated with these nonprofits are responsible for three of the 16 papers in this collection.  I know too little about the now-defunct Citizens for a Sound Economy to pronounce on it.  But I’m quite certain that, while both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Reason Foundation likely did – and perhaps still do – receive some contributions from one or both of the Koch brothers, those contributions did not, and do not, come close to being the principal source of funding for either organization.  So MacLean’s manner of referring to these organizations as “Koch-funded” is misleading given that this reference – especially in the context of what MacLean would describe as the “totality” of her book – seems to suggest that these organizations are puppets of the Kochs.)

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

David Hart just reminded me that, soon after Jim Buchanan died in January of 2013, Liberty Fund’s on-line “Liberty Matters” series for March 2013 was devoted to the life’s work of Buchanan.  I’m surprised and chagrined that I did not link to this symposium when it first went on-line.

The lead essay in this symposium is written by Buchanan’s frequent co-author Geoff Brennan.  Other contributors to this on-line symposium are Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Loren Lomasky, Ed Stringham, and Viktor Varberg.  The whole thing is worth reading.  (Nancy MacLean – who recently wrote what is alleged to be an “intellectual biography” of Buchanan – doesn’t cite this symposium in her book and, judging from her book’s contents, apparently did not read what these collaborators and students of Buchanan said about him.  Too bad, for had she read this symposium she would have encountered several reasons to revise – and in many cases to reverse – her portrayal of Buchanan.)  Here’s a slice from Geoff’s excellent lead essay:

Of course, he saw markets as the primary institution for the mobilization of exchange possibilities. But his version of the “economic analysis of the study of political processes” (or “Public Choice theory,” as it came to be called) was distinctive in Public Choice circles for its emphasis on “politics as exchange” – a phrase he repeated many times. (As an aside, we should note that for many libertarians/classical liberals it might be more natural to think in terms of politics as coercion – and though Buchanan certainly did not deny the possibility of coercion in politics, he equally certainly denied that all government action is intrinsically coercive.) He believed that exchange via political action is possible and that the role of the economist is to uncover those exchange possibilities. In this, he followed Knut Wicksell (unquestionably one of Buchanan’s intellectual heroes) and Wicksell’s other interpreter, Erik Lindahl – and in this sense was a participant along with Musgrave and Samuelson in the analysis of public goods and associated market failure that dominated the welfare economics/public economics of the 1950s and early 1960s.

That is, Buchanan fully accepted the public-goods argument that markets sometimes fail to exploit all the mutual benefits that are on offer in human society. And he also accepted the (Wicksellian) proposition that collective action could in principle appropriate such “gains from exchange” in public-goods supply. In other words, he thought that there is (in principle) a role for the “productive state” as well as the “protective state” – to use a distinction he developed explicitly in the Limits of Liberty (1975).

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Yet Another Nancy MacLean Error

by Don Boudreaux on July 23, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies

Among the most-recent of the late Jim Buchanan’s writings are his essays on what he called “parentalism”: the desire of many people to have others take some responsibility for their lives.  (Many of these essays are gathered in this 2005 collection.  I reviewed this collection here.)

True to form, Nancy MacLean recklessly uses quotations from these later writings of Buchanan in ways that give the appearance that Buchanan held views that he certainly did not hold.  James Taylor uncovers one such careless use by MacLean of a Buchanan quotation.

Nancy MacLean seems to possess extraordinarily poor reading comprehension.  She is either incapable of understanding what she reads, or she reads so spottily from the materials that she uses in her research that she misses the meaning of these materials.  Perhaps both.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

… is from pages 34-35 of Christopher Snowdon’s excellent 2015 monograph, Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism: Debunking Myths about the Free Market (link added):

An ill-informed decision at the ballot box has practically no private cost to the individual.  Even in the extremely unlikely event of his vote being decisive, the costs of electing a fool or a knave will be dispersed over a large population.  In short, voters can afford to indulge their irrational impulses at virtually zero cost every few years.

This is very different from being irrational with one’s own money in the market.  A poor decision in the marketplace will cost us our hard-earned money.  A mistake at work might cost us our job.  It is because the private costs of making a bad choice are so much greater when our own money is at stake that we are incentivised to gather information and choose carefully when making a purchase in the marketplace….  In politics, unless you are a journalist, politician or lobbyist, it is rational to ignore the whole circus and spend one’s time more productively.  ‘Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,’ says [Bryan] Caplan (2007: 140-41).  ‘Shoppers have incentives to be rational.  Voters do not.’  There is, therefore, no contradiction between being a rational actor in the market and an irrational participant (or abstainer) in a democracy.

DBx: The above quotation is a nice summary of a deep insight from Kenneth Arrow and Gordon Tullock (quoted here yesterday).  This insight has been further developed and extended by Geoff Brennan, Loren Lomasky, and my colleague Bryan Caplan.

People more interested in emoting than in thinking often react to this (and other) realistic assessments of the real-world features of democracy by accusing those who offer these assessments of various trumped-up offenses: ‘Opponent of giving ordinary people a say in their own governance!’ ‘Enemy of the People!’ ‘Friend of oligarchs!’  Emoting, of course, feels good, and to indulge in it requires far less effort than does serious thinking.  (Those who know the work of Brennan, Lomasky, and Caplan will recognize the irony here.)  But regardless of your system of ultimate values, if you’re a genuinely well-meaning person you do not dismiss as evil those who point out inconvenient real-world features of your preferred social institutions.  Instead, you listen carefully to such people and, if you judge their insights to be valuable, incorporate these into your own analysis and world-view.

An enthusiast for unlimited majoritarian rule might find the insight quoted above to be mistaken, but surely this insight has enough logical coherence and connection to real-world experience to justify being taken seriously.  This insight ought not be dismissed merely because, if it is taken seriously, it dampens your enthusiasm for unlimited majority rule, or at least causes you to consider reducing the range of human activities over which you wish to have majority decisions reign as sovereign.  Anyone who would dismiss this insight is obliged to do more than scream ‘It’s undemocratic and those who offer it or who endorse it are enemies of democracy and, therefore, enemies of all that is good and noble!’

Note that the political left is full of people who view individuals acting in markets as being gullible and irrational.  So if we grant that people on the political left are friends of humanity, it’s not true that merely to point out that there are some institutional settings in which it can be argued that individuals regularly act irrationally or unwisely is to reveal a hatred of humanity.  The challenge is to compare how ordinary men and women are likely to act under different institutional settings – namely, on one hand, in collective decision-making settings (such as majoritarian democratic settings) and, on the other hand, in private-property settings (such as commercial markets).

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

… is from page 916 of my late colleague Gordon Tullock’s ingenious July/August 1971 Journal of Political Economy article, “Public Decisions as Public Goods“:

Here, we encounter another very important public-good problem.  The individual citizen, in choosing what car he will purchase, is making a private decision, the full cost of which will fall upon himself.  Thus, he is motivated to put an optimal amount of energy into finding out what is the best car for him.  In addition, if he makes a mistake, no one pays for it but himself.  If, on the other hand, he is considering voting, then, as Kenneth Arrow (1969, p. 107) points out, “since the effect of any individual vote is so very small, it does not pay a voter to acquire information unless his stake in the initial issue is enormously greater than the cost of information.”  The individual voter is producing a public good when he casts his vote, and he has very little, if any, reason for acquiring information to see to it that his vote is properly cast.  The probable cost to him of miscasting his vote is trivial.

Under the circumstances, we would not anticipate that the voter would bother to become very well informed.

DBx: Gordon’s insight (and that of Kenneth Arrow) is important if we are to understand political decision-making realistically rather than romantically.

Note, by the way, that Gordon’s quotation from Arrow is from Arrow’s Spring 1969 article in Public Choice titled “Tullock and an Existence Theorem.”  Nancy MacLean – in her fabulist history of public choice – described Tullock’s publication record in 1967 as being “undistinguished.”  As I show here, that description is completely mistaken.  But to further expose MacLean’s ignorance of the professional status of Gordon Tullock in the mid-1960s, note that one of the most pre-eminent economists in the world then, Kenneth Arrow, was inspired around this time to write and publish an article with “Tullock” in the title.  Economists with undistinguished publication records do not draw such attention from giants in the economics profession.

While I’m on this topic of Tullock’s prominence, let me mention two facts about Tullock that I forgot to mention in my earlier post.  First, in 1967 Tullock also published (with the University of Michigan Press) his book Toward a Mathematics of Politics.  Indeed, it is this 1967 book by Tullock that inspired Arrow’s article.

Second, around this time Tullock was invited to contribute a paper to a festschrift for F.A. Hayek on the latter’s 70th birthday.  This volume – Roads to Freedom: essays in honour of Friedrich A. von Hayek – was published in 1969; Tullock’s contribution to it is titled “The New Theory of Corporations.”  Some of the other contributors to this festschrift are P.T. Bauer, Jim Buchanan, Fritz Machlup, and Karl Popper – highly prominent scholars all, as was Tullock.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

In 1997 my late colleague Gordon Tullock (1922-2014) – widely and correctly recognized to be among the founders of public-choice scholarship – published an article entitled “Origins of Public Choice.”  It is reprinted in The Economics of Politics (2005), which is volume 4 of the Selected Works of Gordon Tullock.  Had Nancy MacLean read (or read carefully) this article, she would have  learned that many of her fanciful suppositions about the roots of public choice are mistaken.  Here’s Gordon’s opening sentence:

Public Choice started long ago with the Marquis de Condorcet, and in modern times Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, and Anthony Downs have written books which are to this day read as classics [p. 11]

Tullock’s claim here is one that is familiar to anyone who knows public-choice scholarship.  Curiously, however, Nancy MacLean – in writing a book in which she poses as someone who knows the history of public choice – never once mentions Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017) (despite Arrow being a 1972 Nobel laureate economist) or Duncan Black (1908-1991).  She mentions Anthony Downs (1930 –  ) only once, when she quotes from his review of Buchanan’s and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent.  MacLean does not mention Downs’s pioneering and influential 1957 public-choice book, An Economic Theory of Democracy.  Too bad, that, for had she given these pioneering figures the recognition that they deserve in any book that is fancied to reveal the true origins of public-choice scholarship, MacLean’s account of public-choice being rooted in southern U.S. racism and “Southern Agrarianism” would have been immediately exposed as dubious.

Condorcet (1743-1794) was a brilliant French mathematician and philosopher who famously held genuinely progressive political views.  Indeed, as is said correctly about Condorcet’s political views on his Wikipedia page, “Condorcet’s work was mainly focused on a quest for a more egalitarian society.”  It would severely complicate the narrative of public choice as a racist plot – one that has as its “intellectual lodestar” John C. Calhoun – to have to explain what Condorcet is doing as a founder of public choice.  (To avoid any possible confusion, note that Calhoun had just turned 12 years of age when Condorcet died.  Therefore, Calhoun’s influence on Condorcet was likely negligible.)

Here’s another passage from Tullock’s 1997 essay:

Those who feel that public choice started on the far right should bear in mind that Kenneth Arrow regarded himself as a socialist, that Duncan Black [a Scot] voted for Labour, and that both Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson are members of the left half of the Democratic party [p. 18].

Mancur Olson (1932-1998) is another justly celebrated early public-choice theorist.  Although MacLean cites Olson, and on page 111 of her book describes him and one of his co-authors (Christopher Clague) as “public choice scholars,” she is either unaware of, or does not reveal, the fact that Olson’s work played, and still plays, a major role in the public-choice literature.

So we have among public-choice’s founders and most-influential early contributors an 18th-century French liberal, an American Nobel laureate economist with socialist (and certainly undeniable left-wing) credentials, a Scottish Labourite, and two Americans – one from Evanston, IL (Downs) and the other from Grand Forks, ND (Olson) – who identified themselves as very ‘liberal’ Democrats.  (Tullock, by the way, was from Rockford, IL.)  Yet Nancy MacLean remained ignorant of nearly all of these facts when telling the world, in her book, that public-choice scholarship traces back to the racist ideas and ideals of John C. Calhoun and the Southern Agrarianism of Donald Davidson.

Methinks that MacLean is ignorant of the topic about which she pretends to be informed in Democracy in Chains.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Ilya Somin applauds Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken’s embrace of federalism.

The indispensable Institute for Justice weighs in again against the banana-republic practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Speaking of civil asset forfeiture, Justice Clarence Thomas is unlikely to be a fan of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s obscene expansion of this heinous abuse of power.

Here are the highlights of my recent “Ask Me Anything” sponsored by the Foundation for Economic Education.

My Mercatus Center colleague Dan Griswold explains that free trade means that the right stuff will be made in America.  A slice:

The issue is not whether we make stuff in America, but what kind of stuff. Do we make more of what Americans enjoy a special advantage in making? That’s what international trade allows us to do. Or do we make more of the stuff that does not play to our strengths, such as furniture, clothing, shoes, or mass market TV sets?

Also from Dan Griswold is his support for Ivanka Trump’s practice of sourcing her clothing in Ethiopia.

Radley Balko argues correctly that public-choice scholarship supplies important keys to those who wish to understand the actual operations of the criminal-justice system.

Here’s a Cato Daily Podcast in which Caleb Brown talks with the deeply knowledgeable Phil Magness about Nancy MacLean’s fictional book, Democracy in Chains.

Bob Higgs dispenses with Nancy MacLean’s ludicrous argument that public-choice analysis is the fruit or tool of a racist scheme to impose oligarchy.  A slice:

The claim that public choice analysis is intended to, or actually does, assist the rich in dominating the poor, or the capitalists in dominating the workers, or the whites in dominating the blacks cannot be made in good faith by anyone who has the slightest familiarity with public choice analysis. Questions posed in these forms are simply not component parts of public choice analysis. Nor were they among the concerns of James Buchanan, one of the leading founders of modern public choice analysis. Buchanan’s principal concern pertained to the use of constitutional restrictions that would, to the maximum feasible extent, allow each individual’s preferences to be registered in the political process and prevent special interests and the state itself from overriding the rights and interests of those with the least voice in the process.

Progressives who do not understand public choice analysis (and indeed object to it on principle) seek to force it into the Procrustean bed of quasi-Marxist class-struggle analysis—you know, capitalists versus the oppressed working class as a whole—or into a quasi-Marxist multiculturalist framework in which privileged straight white men as a whole oppress women and members of ethnic and sexual-preference minorities as a whole. These aggregations are so coarse that they invite the mockery of informed people, and they certainly cannot be sustained by systematic research of the kind one finds in the pages of Public Choice and related peer-reviewed journals.

Nancy MacLean’s thesis that James Buchanan and his comrades in the development of public choice analysis sought to subvert democracy and put in its place a racist oligarchy at the behest of evil billionaires is too ludicrous to take seriously.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 22, 2017

in Politics, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 49 of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1979 article “Politics Without Romance,” as it is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty:

But most of the scholars who have been instrumental in developing public choice theory have themselves been trained initially as economists.  There has been, therefore, a tendency for these scholars to bring with them models of man that have been found useful within economic theory, models that have been used to develop empirically testable and empirically corroborated hypotheses.  These models embody the presumption that persons seek to maximize their own utilities, and that their own narrowly-defined economic well-being is an important component of these utilities.  At this point, however, I do not want to enter into either a defense of or an attack on the usefulness of Homo economics ,either in economics or in any theory of politics.  I would say only, as I have many times before, that the burden of proof should rest with those who suggest that wholly different models of man apply in the political and the economic realms of behavior.  Logical consistency suggests that, at least initially, we examine the implications of using the same models in different settings.

DBx: This aspect of public-choice scholarship was repeated often by Buchanan (and by other public-choice scholars).  And while it’s not a difficult point to grasp, Nancy MacLean – judging from her book Democracy in Chains – apparently either missed this point or is unable to grasp it.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Perhaps the passage in Nancy MacLean’s fictional tract that is richest in irony – and just as rich in error as any other randomly chosen passage in Democracy in Chains – is this one on page 98 (which serves as a source of quotations for many reviewers, including Brian Doherty and Mike Munger) (footnote deleted):

They [public-choice scholars] depicted as “rent-seeking” any collective efforts by citizens or public servants to prompt government action that involved tax revenues. And, in their assumption that individuals always acted to advance their personal economic self-interest rather than collective goals or the common good, Buchanan’s school went further, projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing. Similarly, Virginia school economists deployed the existing term “special interests” to refer primarily to organized citizens seeking government action and occasionally to corporations seeking legislative favor….  The scholars were conducting, in effect, thought experiments, or hypothetical scenarios with no true research—no facts—to support them, while the very terms of their analysis denied such motives as compassion, fairness, solidarity, generosity, justice, and sustainability.

Let’s begin with the errors.  Rent-seeking activities are not “any collective efforts by citizens or public servants to prompt government action that involved tax revenues.”  (Note: Making sense of “to prompt government action that involved tax revenues” is no easy chore.  One must guess just what MacLean thinks she means by this poorly worded passage.  I’ll do my best.)  First, rent-seeking as described and criticized by public-choice scholars typically is carried out by members of a relatively small special-interest group – for example, U.S. tire producers.  By “rent-seeking,” public-choice scholars do not mean all efforts by ‘the People’ to affect tax revenues or government behavior; they do not refer to efforts by any group or organization that can plausibly be regarded as working for the inclusive public interest.  A rent-seeking effort is one aimed at transferring value or sources of value – for example, property, income, consumer patronage – from one group of people to another group of people.  The very point of Gordon Tullock’s now-classic insight into rent-seeking is that efforts and resources spent merely to transfer value are wasted; those efforts and resources could have instead been, but weren’t, used to produce more value.

Put differently, for Jones to seek rents is for Jones to spend effort and resources trying to slice a given-sized pie more favorably for Jones – and, hence, less favorably, on average, for others.  Not only do non-Joneses, on average, get smaller slices of the pie, the pie itself is kept from growing because Jones spent resources on getting for himself a transfer from others rather than producing for others.  Contrary to what MacLean seems to think, efforts by public-spirited souls to genuinely improve society are not what is meant by “rent-seeking.”  (Reasonable people can and do disagree on which particular efforts will improve society and which will merely transfer value from the politically or economically less-adept to the politically or economically more adept.  A great deal of ink has been spilled in the rent-seeking literature on just this question.  But no one who knows anything about the rent-seeking literature believes that “rent-seeking” refers to efforts to improve society.)

Second, rent-seeking is not limited to “government action that involve[s] tax revenues.” The canonical rent-seeking activity is the quest by domestic producer groups for protective – as opposed to revenue – tariffs.  Such tariffs transfer income to successful rent-seeking domestic producers from large numbers of consumers who must pay higher prices, and from unseen workers and entrepreneurs who are rendered unemployable in their most-productive lines of work.  Tax revenue has nothing whatsoever to do with this form, or with many other forms, of rent-seeking.  And, importantly, there is no reason to believe that the typical successful rent-seeker is a poor, powerless person who manages to get the state to transfer income to him or her from people richer and more powerful.  Quite the opposite – as is shown over the decades in many of the empirical studies that appear in the referred journal Public Choice (and other places, such as the Journal of Law & Economics).  These studies are among the empirical public-choice studies that MacLean asserts do not exist.

A similar criticism applies to MacLean’s bizarre suggestion that public-choice scholars typically mean by “special interests” a public-interest group, and “occasionally … corporations seeking legislative favor.”  Whether public-choice scholars are correct on this matter or not, the special interests that they typically refer to are indeed corporations and other producer groups seeking legislative (and bureaucratic) favors.  MacLean is completely mistaken to suggest that by “special interests” public-choice scholars have in mind mostly large and diverse groups that act, or mean to act, in what members of those groups sincerely regard to be the public interest.

Another error is MacLean’s assertion that public-choice scholars (1) focus on motives, and (2) believe that the motives of people acting politically are narrowly materialistic and contemptible.  As Mike Munger correctly points out in his review of MacLean’s book, her claim is mistaken because Buchanan “thought people made subjective judgments, and those judgments might well be altruistic or almost anything else.”  But even more fundamentally: Buchanan reminded his readers repeatedly that public choice does not project motives onto those who operate in collective- or political-choice settings that differ in any way from the motives that are assumed to operate in commercial markets and other private settings.

Central to the public-choice project is the use in analyses of political decision-making the same assumptions about human motivation that are used in analyses of markets.  Public-choice scholars do not regard people who choose and act within political institutions to be any different from people who choose and act within private-property, market institutions.  A central – many might say the – point of public-choice analysis is to show that people’s choices and actions differ in political settings from what these are in market settings not because people have different motivations but, instead, because people confront in the different settings different constraints and potential benefits.  Change the rules of the game – change the opportunities and constraints – and the players change their choices and actions.

That MacLean misses this public choice point is alone sufficient to render anything else that she says about public choice, and about the men and women who work in the public-choice tradition, utterly untrustworthy.  Her missing this point is the equivalent of someone writing about Copernicus and missing Copernicus’s argument that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth.  MacLean doesn’t begin to know what she’s talking about.

Now to the irony.  As argued just above, Buchanan and other public-choice scholars do not “project[] unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing.”  But guess who does?  Nancy MacLean.  Despite her research, she obviously knows next-to-nothing about Buchanan in particular or about public choice generally.  And yet despite not knowing Buchanan (or, I feel certain, any other public-choice scholar) she attributes to Buchanan and public-choice scholars evil motives – motives that they did not (and do not) have and that she has no good reason to assert that they had or have.

MacLean is far too sloppy, illogical, and uninformed a historian to take seriously on these matters.

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email