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Quotation of the Day…

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… is from page 443 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan’s Spring/Summer 1994 Cato Journal article, “Notes on the Liberal Constitution, [2]” as this article is reprinted in Choice, Contract, and Constitutions [3] (2001), which is volume 16 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan [4] (footnote deleted):

A central principle inherent in the classical liberal constitution dictated that, regardless of what governments do, and whether or not collective activities are contained within the indicated limits, all persons and groups are to be treated equally.  The generality principle, applicable to the law, was to be extended also to politics.  There was no role for governmental action that explicitly differentiated among separate factions or classes of persons.  In the classical liberal conception, successful majority coalitions could not impose differential taxation on members of political minorities, even for the purposes of “doing good.”

DBx: A plausible hypothesis is that someone such as Nancy MacLean reads these words and detects in them only a scheme to prevent the poor from using government force to take their ‘fair share’ from the rich.  And, indeed, Jim Buchanan – like countless classical liberals and libertarians before and since – believed that among the predations that a sound constitution prevents is the indiscriminate taking of the private property of ‘the rich’ by the less-rich.  But as Buchanan’s words above make clear – and as the tradition of classical liberalism reveals over and over again – what Buchanan calls “the generality principle” prevents all predation through majoritarian means.  The effective operation of this principle prevents not only the socially destructive taking by the poor of the wealth of the rich, but also the socially destructive taking by the rich of the wealth of the poor.

Further, had MacLean done what she gives no evidence of having done – namely, familiarized herself with both the history and the substance of public-choice scholarship – she would have learned that a large bulk (likely well over half) of public-choice scholarship is devoted to explaining how those who even MacLean would regard as ‘the rich’ and the middle-classes abuse majoritarian processes in order to secure for themselves wealth transfers from other people who are less wealthy and less politically powerful than they.

Were MacLean actually aware of the substance of public-choice scholarship she would know that this literature reveals that ‘the rich’ often use majoritarian processes to prey on each other – preying that inflicts collateral damage on the poor and working-classes.  One of my favorite examples is detailed in the 1977 Journal of Law & Economics article by Howard Marvel titled “Factory Regulation: A Reinterpretation of Early English Experience [5].”  Marvel shows that the seemingly humanitarian Factory Acts in 19th-century Great Britain were in fact clever rent-seeking devices use by owners of steam-powered mills to artificially raise the operating costs of water-powered mills.  Enforcement of these Acts inflated the profits of some ‘capitalist’ mill owners, decreased the profits of other ‘capitalist’ mill owners, and harmed workers employed in water-powered mills.

Howard Marvel, for what it’s worth, was an undergraduate professor of my friend Jennifer Roback-Morse.  Jenny – who joined the GMU Econ faculty in 1985 – was my GMU colleague for four years and, during her time at GMU and the Center for Study of Public Choice, was inspired by the work of Bob Higgs to do further research into the manner in which white racists in the south used majoritarian democratic procedures to impose segregation that competitive market processes were not delivering in the abundance that the racists desired – and, indeed, that competitive market processes were breaking down.  See, for example, Jenny’s October 1989 Economic Inquiry article, “Racism as Rent Seeking [6].”  The new paper by Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, and Phil Magness [7] has more on Jenny’s research along these lines.  But I here emphasize: most of this work was done during Jenny’s tenure at GMU Econ and its Center for Study of Public Choice – and done long before Jim Buchanan retired.

MacLean – judging from her book and from her public commentary since its publication – is utterly ignorant of any of these aspects of public choice.  She has it in her seemingly closed mind that anyone who in any manner questions the wisdom and goodness of the results of constitutionally unconstrained majoritarian processes does so because that someone wishes to further enrich capitalist oligarchs (whom she naively assumes to share a single and well-defined economic interest) at the expense of ordinary men and women.  Again, MacLean’s ‘history’ of Buchanan and of public choice has as much less truth-content as than does a Warner Bros. roadrunner cartoon [8].

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