Saturday, July 22, 2017

Public Choice Under Fire

The recent publication of Duke historian Nancy MacLean's book entitled "Democracy in Chains" has caused quite a stir among economists interested in public choice and political economy. Having read several positive and negative (links to the many positive and negative reviews and commentary can be found in the updates to this post) reviews and comments on the book, it's clear to me that MacLean's thesis is something like the following: James Buchanan (Nobel Laureate in economics, 1986) along with this colleagues developed a school of economic thought (public choice) with the express intention to undermine democratic institutions in the U.S. to benefit the wealth interests that funded them. Also, as a man from the south, Buchanan was motivated by racism and based his ideas on the thought of other racist scholars.

Aside from the accusations of racism, the substantive critique made clear in the title strikes me as odd. What does it mean to put democracy "in chains?" Does making clear, in a scientific way, the limits of collective decision making put democracy "in chains" or does it allow us to determine what set of underlying institutions provides for the best set of laws?

The normative aspects of public choice are, in my mind, about the latter. The descriptive analysis of the inefficiencies in our actions as politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, political interest groups, voters, etc. helps us understand the characteristics of institutions that might limit such inefficiencies. We have, for instance, minority protections in the constitution precisely because a democratic majority might harm them.

MacLean insistst, for example, that libertarians long ago opposed Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, the source she cites comes to precisely the opposite conclusion. Further, Brown is a good example of a minority protection that restricts the will of the majority. If it is "unchained" majority rule that MacLean praises, she should oppose the Brown decision because it explicitly ensured that a problematic majority-rule decision was corrected.

There are, it seems, many other problems with MacLean's book, but her insistence that public choice economics is a tool for the powerful is obviously off base.

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