… are the closing lines (found on page 185 of the original edition) of James M. Buchanan’s and Richard E. Wagner’s important 1977 book, Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes:
On the one side, there lies the falsely attractive path toward “national economic planning,” a choice that would have us allow government to go beyond traditional bounds because it has failed even to fulfill its more limited promises. On the other side, there is the way of the free society, of men and women living within a constitutional contract that also keeps governments in well-chosen harness. This way, so well understood by Americans two centuries past, has been obscured by the underbrush of burgeoning bureaucracy. Will we, like Robert Frost’s traveler, choose the road less traveled by?
DBx: In 1977, Buchanan and Wagner were warning against the pretensions mostly of professors, pundits, and politicians on the political left. In 2020 these same people remain sufficiently – perhaps even more – pretentious and, thus, we should continue to beware of them and their mix of hubris, economic and historical ignorance, and wild fantasies.
But in 2020 Buchanan’s and Wagner’s warning is increasingly applicable also to self-identified American conservatives – people such as Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tucker Carlson, Daniel McCarthy, and Oren Cass. Despite some differences that separate each from the other, and that separate each from self-identified “Progressives,” conservatives who support interventions such as industrial policy are, no less than their “Progressive” counterparts, ignorant of history, clueless about economics, naive about human nature, uncritical of pop and potted accounts of recent events, dismissive of much of what they profess to respect (including the U.S. Constitution), contemptuous of principles, and stupidly trusting of those in their tribe who possess state power.
Like “Progressives,” these conservatives too often mistake the unavoidable making of inescapable trade-offs as manifestations of problems ‘solvable’ by state intervention. They also – and also like their “Progressive” counterparts – mistake their ability to imagine splendid social and economic outcomes, or to describe such outcomes on paper, as sufficient evidence that such outcomes can realistically be engineered into existence by the state, and will be so engineered if only we entrust the right officials with sufficient power.
These conservatives and “Progressives” would have us lose touch with reality. Looking down one path, they see reality, and they dislike it. Looking down the other path they see only beautiful mirages conjured by their imaginations. Believing the latter to be real, they recommend the latter path. Reality-based people do not follow them willingly down this path, because behind the mirages is a reality far worse – a reality more impoverished and more filled with oppression – than the other path.