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Quotation of the Day…

Posted By Don Boudreaux On April 30, 2013 @ 9:03 am In Economics,Politics,Reality Is Not Optional | Comments Disabled

… is from pages 187-188 of James Gwartney’s insightful 2013 essay “The Public Choice Revolution and Principles of Economics Texts,” which is chapter 13 of Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock [1] (Dwight R. Lee, editor, 2013):

Rather than analyzing how both markets and collective decision-making handle economic problems, mainstream economics continues to model government as if it were an omniscient, benevolent social planner available to impose ideal solutions….

Implicitly, this methodology treats the political process as if it is a corrective device available to impose ideal social outcomes, something like a pinch hitter that always delivers the game-winning hit.  But this is a fantasy.  A choice between the real world of markets and the hypothetical ideal of government intervention is not an option.  Instead, the choice is always about how markets work compared to the alternatives.  Put another way, the relevant choice is always between the real-world operation of markets and the real-world operation of the political process.

If Ivy League professors of economics spent their seminars outlining ways that God could improve earthly economic reality – if these scholars devoted the bulk of their efforts to conveying to the Almighty their detailed analyses of how divine intervention would be a great blessing should the Almighty hear and grant their prayers – no one would take these professors seriously.  They would be rightly ridiculed for practicing a secular voodoo that everyone with a scientific turn of mind would immediately dismiss as (at best) worthless nonsense.

But let the assumption be made (as, alas, it is made – in fact, if not explicitly or consciously) that the modern democratic state and its ‘leaders’ have Risen above the fallen-angel realities that curse the rest of us mortals, and, voila!, advice given by scholars to holders of state power becomes Scientific advice given to secular saviors – to creatures who are either god-like or who are at least fundamentally better, wiser, nobler than the mortals who need intervention from on high to make them holier.  This advice is widely regarded as worthy of respect, even reverence.

No one, for example, would advise curing the ills of a steel cartel merely by asking the cartel leaders to ‘do what’s right’ (here, to lower their prices and increase their outputs to competitive levels).  Such a proposed cure is indeed wholly unscientific, and would be widely recognized as such.  So why do so many intelligent people believe that asking officials invested with sovereign power to ‘do what’s right’ is scientific and legitimate?

I cannot explain this bizarre dualism except by assuming that those who look to the state as being at least a potential secular savior have a kind of religious belief in the transformative power of sovereign power.  The continuing rejection and ignorance of public-choice analyses [2] reflects the fact that public-choice threatens not a mere scientific paradigm; rather, public-choice apparently threatens a deeply held and cherished dogma – a dogma featuring a belief in secular creationism and the need for, and possibility of, useful intervention from a higher power.

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[1] Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock: http://www.amazon.com/Public-Choice-Past-Present-Buchanan/dp/1461459087/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366199919&sr=1-6

[2] public-choice analyses: http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PublicChoice.html

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