Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 27, 2017

in Adam Smith, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 62 of Randy Simmons’s 2011 Revised Edition of his and the late William Mitchell’s 1994 volume, Beyond Politics, which is an excellent primer on public-choice scholarship:

Despite their rhetoric, interest groups are not organized for the intention of improving the working of the economic order; they form for the sole purpose of increasing their members’ welfare and will do so knowing full well that it comes at a cost to others.  Interest groups do not, then, seek public goods for the nation but to obtain more private goods that could not be gained in the private economy.  Special interests and especially those representing producers seek to have income and wealth redistributed to themselves.

DBx: This insight is central to public-choice analysis, yet it pre-dates public-choice analysis by centuries.  It is, for example, featured in Adam Smith’s 1776 An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (especially in Book IV).  One of the advances that public choice has made on this insight is to explain that this problem is not adequately diminished in majoritarian settings by a wide franchise with frequent and non-corrupt elections.  Constraints supplied by constitutional architecture such as checks and balances and federalism – and, in some cases, by outright prohibitions on what government may do – are necessary to reduce the ability of special-interest groups to use state power to prey upon the general public.

Reasonable people can and do disagree over what are the best specific means of checking the power of special-interest groups.  But no reasonable person – at least no one who writes seriously about political economy and constitutional government – interprets a call for constitutional constraints and restrictions as really a call, “stealth” or otherwise, to prevent government from furthering the interests of ordinary people, or of the general public, by giving as much power as possible to predatory oligarchs.  And yet such a childish interpretation of constitutionalism is central to Nancy MacLean’s fabulist Democracy in Chains.  Anyone who takes this MacLean book seriously – even someone who knows nothing about its central figure, the late Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan – ought to be ashamed of his or her supine gullibility.

Oh, by the way, neither John C. Calhoun nor Donald Davidson – the two alleged inspirations for Jim Buchanan and public choice – are mentioned in Beyond Politics.


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