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Public Choice and "Privilege"

Posted by on | July 24, 2017 | Comments Off

A key thrust of Nancy MacLean’s book on the great Koch / Buchanan / libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy is that public choice theory is all about protecting and cementing elite privilege under the law.  This is actually exactly opposite of how I have always viewed public choice theory — public choice theory tends to show how well-intentioned “public service” programs tend to get co-opted by a few powerful people for their own benefit.  See “ethanol mandates” or “steel tariffs” or “beautician licensing” or any number of other programs.  But I am not conversant enough to really make this case well.  Fortunately, Steven Horwitz (pdf) has done it in his powerful critique of MacLean’s book.

The intellectual error that is most frustrating, however, is her understanding of the relationship between public choice theory and questions of power and privilege. As Munger (2018) points out in his review, MacLean is an unreconstructed majoritarian. She genuinely believes, at least in this book, that the majority should always be able to enact its preferences and that constitutional constraints on majority rule are ways of protecting the power and privilege of wealthy white males. That’s the source of Democracy in Chains as her title and her argument that public choice theory is a tool of the powerful elite. As Munger also observes, normally such a view would be seen as a strawman as no serious political scientist believes it, not to mention that no democracy in the world lacks constitutional constraints on majorities. In addition, one must presume that a progressive like MacLean thinks Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, and  Obergefell v. Hodges, not to mention Brown, were all decided correctly, even though all of them put local democracies in chains, and in some cases, thwarted the expressed preferences of a majority of Americans.

For public choice theory, constitutions protect the citizens from two forms of tyranny: tyrannies of the majority when they wish to violate rights and tyrannies of coalitions of minorities who wish to use the state to redirect resources to themselves by taking advantage of the logic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Buchanan’s political vision is, in Peter Boettke’s words, a world without discrimination and domination. Constitutional constraints, for Buchanan, are a central way of ensuring that democracy actually protects rights by preventing the powerful from exploiting the powerless and that political decisions involve the consent of all. Constitutional constraints make democracy work for all citizens – they do not put it in chains.

When MacLean argues that public choice is a tool to protect privilege, she gets it exactly backward. Public choice shows us how those with the power to influence the political process can use that power to create and protect privilege for themselves at the expense of the rest of the citizenry. Public choice’s analysis of rent-seeking and politics as exchange enables us to strip off the mask of bogus “public interest” explanations and see a great deal of political activity as socially destructive exploitation of the least well-off. To borrow a bit from the left’s rhetoric: public choice is better seen as a tool of resistance to oligarchy than a defense thereof. It helps us understand why corporate welfare remains so common even as so many see it as a problem. Public choice also helps to understand the growth of the military-industrial complex and challenges public interest explanations of that growth. One can tell similar stories about immigration policy and a number of other issues of that concern modern progressives. Public choice theory sees the battles over Uber and Lyft as the powerful government-licensed taxi companies fighting to protect their monopoly privileges and profits against upstart entrepreneurs better meeting the wants of the public. This provides an excellent illustration of how public choice theory can explain political outcomes, and why the theory is useful in understanding how the powerful can victimize the less powerful. Public choice theory, properly understood, is a tool of critical thinking that enables us to deconstruct political rhetoric to see the underlying forces at work that are allowing those with wealth and access to power to use politics to acquire and protect their privileges and profits

As Arnold Kling might say, and Horowitz himself posits in different words, libertarians spend so much time obsessing over the freedom-coercion political axis that they miss out on ways to engage those on the Oppressor-Oppressed axis.  Public choice theory has a lot to offer Progressives, as it explains a lot about how well-meaning legislation with progressive intent is often co-opted by powerful groups to enrich themselves.  Sure a lot of public choice theory is used by libertarians to say, essentially, burn the whole government to the ground; but there is a lot from my experience in public choice literature that should speak to good government progressives, academic work using public choice to think about better designing programs to more closely achieve their objectives.

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 Public Choice and "Privilege"

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