Public choice and market failure: Jeffrey Friedman on Nancy MacLean

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Jeffrey Friedman has a well-argued piece on interpreting public choice in the wake of Nancy MacLean’s conspiratorial critique of one of its founding theorists, James Buchanan. While agreeing that MacLean is implausibly uncharitable in her interpretation of Buchanan, Friedman suggests that many of Buchanan’s defenders are themselves in an untenable position. This is because public choice allows theorists to make uncharitable assumptions about political actors that they have never met or observed. In this sense, MacLean is simply imputing her preferred own set of bad motives onto her political opponents. What is sauce for the goose is good the gander.

I think Friedman’s arguments are a valid critique of the way that public choice is sometimes deployed in popular discourse. A lot of libertarian commentary assumes that those seeking political power are uniquely bad people, always having self-interest and self-aggrandisement as their true aim. Given that this anti-politics message is associated with getting worse political leaders who are becoming progressively less friendly to individual liberty, this approach to characterising politicians seems counterproductive. However, I don’t think Friedman’s position is such a good fit for Buchanan himself or most of those working in the scholarly public choice tradition.

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BC’s weekend reads

  1. I thought the Nancy MacLean’s book attacking James Buchanan was great for present-day libertarianism, in that it only weakens the already weak Left. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles share my sensibilities.
  2. What is public choice, anyway? And what is it good for?
  3. One of the Notewriters reviews James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State
  4. Aztec Political Thought
  5. Turkey dismisses 7,000 in fresh purge
  6. 10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”

It’s this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics: finding examples of bad scholarship in Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains. For those out of the loop, MacLean, a history professor at Duke University, argues in her book that Nobel-prize winning public choice economist James Buchanan is part of some Koch-funded vast right-libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy as inspired by southern racist agrarians and confederates like John Calhoun. This glowing review from NPR should give you a taste of her argument, which often has the air of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, to make these arguments she’s had to cut some huge corners in her federally-funded research. Here’s a round-up of her dishonesty:

  • David Bernstein points out how MacLean’s own sources contradict her claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov disagreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board.
  • Russ Roberts reveals how out-of-context Tyler Cowen was taken by MacLean, misquoting him to attribute to Cowen a view which he was arguing against.
  • David Henderson finds that she did the same thing to Buchanan.
  • Steve Horwitz points out how wildly out-of-context MacLean took a quote from Buchanan on public education.
  • Phil Magness reveals how much MacLean needed to wildly reach to tie Buchanan to southern agrarians with his use of the word “Leviathan.”
  • Phil Magness, again, reveals MacLean needed to do the same thing to tie Buchanan to Calhoun.
  • David Bernstein finds several factual errors about MacLean’s telling of the history of George Mason’s University.

I’m sure there is more to come. But, poor scholarship and complete dishonesty in source citation aside, an important question needs to be asked about all this: even if MacLean didn’t need to reach so far to paint Buchanan in such a negative light, why should we care?

I admittedly haven’t read her book yet (so could be wrong), but from the way even positive reviewers paint it and the way she talks about it herself in interviews (see around 15:30 of that episode), one can infer that she is in no way interested in a nuanced analytical critique of Buchanan’s public choice models or his arguments in favor of constitutional restrictions on democratic majorities. Her argument, if you can call it that, seems to be something like this:

  1. Democracy and majority rule are inherently good.
  2. James Buchanan wants stricter restrictions on democratic majority rule, and so did some Southern racists.
  3. Therefore, James Buchanan is a racist, evil corporate shill.

Even if she didn’t need to establish premise 2, why should we care? Every ideology has elements of it that can be tied to some seedy elements of the past, it doesn’t make the arguments that justify those ideologies wrong. For example, the pro-choice and women’s health movement has its roots in attempts to market birth control to race-based eugenicists (though these links, like MacLean’s attempts, aren’t as insidious as some on the modern right make them out to be), that does not mean modern women’s health advocates are racial eugenicists. Early advocates of the minimum wage argued for wage floors for racist and sexist reasons, yet nobody really thinks (or, at least, should think) modern progressives have dubious racist motives for wanting to raise the minimum wage. The American Economic Association was founded by racist eugenicists in the American Institutionalist school, yet nobody thinks modern economists are racist or that anyone influenced by the institutionalists today is a eugenicist. The Democratic Party used to be the party of the KKK, yet nobody (except the most obnoxious of Republican partisans) thinks that’s at all relevant to the DNC’s modern platform. Heidegger was heavily linked to Nazism and anti-Semitism, but it’s impossible to write off and ignore his philosophical contributions and remain intellectually honest.

Similarly, even if Buchanan did read Calhoun and it got him thinking about constitutional reform, that does not at all mean he agreed with Calhoun on slavery or that modern libertarian-leaning public choice theorists are neo-confederates, and it has even less to do with the merits of Buchanan’s analytical critiques of how real-world democracies function. In fact, as Vincent Geloso has pointed out here at NOL, Buchanan has given modern scholars the analytical tools to critique racism.

Intellectual history is messy and complicated, and can often lead to links we might—with the benefit of historical hindsight—view as situated in an unsavory context. However, as long as those historical lineages have little to no bearing on people’s motivations for making similar arguments or being intellectual inheritors of similar ideological traditions today (which isn’t always the case), there is no relevance to modern discourse other than perhaps idle historical curiosity. These types of attempts to cast guilt upon one’s intellectual opponents through historical association are, at best, another intellectually lazy version of the genetic fallacy (which MacLean also loves to commit when she starts conspiratorially complaining about Koch Brothers funding).

Just tell me if this sounds like a good argument to you:

  1. Historical figure X makes a similar argument Y to what you’re making.
  2. X was a racist and was influenced by some racists.
  3. Therefore, Y is wrong.

If it doesn’t, you’re right, 3 doesn’t follow from 2 (and in MacLean’s case 1 is a stretch).

Please, if you want to criticize someone’s arguments, actually criticize their arguments; don’t rely on a tabloid version of intellectual history to dismiss them, especially when that intellectual history is a bunch of dishonest misquotations and hand-waving associations.

James Buchanan on racism


Ever since Nancy MacLean’s new book came out, there have been waves of discussions of the intellectual legacy of James Buchanan – the economist who pioneered public choice theory and won the Nobel in economics in 1986. Most prominent in the book are the inuendos of Buchanan’s racism.  Basically, public choice had a “racist” agenda.  Even Brad DeLong indulged in this criticism of Buchanan by pointing that he talked about race by never talking race, a move which reminds him of Lee Atwater.

The thing is that it is true that Buchanan never talked about race as DeLong himself noted.  Yet, that is not a sign (in any way imaginable) of racism. The fact is that Buchanan actually inspired waves of research regarding the origins of racial discrimination and was intellectually in line with scholars who contributed to this topic.

Protecting Majorities and Minorities from Predation

To see my point in defense of Buchanan here, let me point out that I am French-Canadian. In the history of Canada, strike that, in the history of the province of Quebec where the French-Canadians were the majority group, there was widespread discrimination against the French-Canadians. For all intents and purposes, the French-Canadian society was parallel to the English-Canadian society and certain occupations were de facto barred to the French.  It was not segregation to be sure, but it was largely the result of the fact that the Catholic Church had, by virtue of the 1867 Constitution, monopoly over education. The Church lobbied very hard  in order to protect itself from religious competition and it incited logrolling between politicians in order to win Quebec in the first elections of the Canadian federation. Logrolling and rent-seeking! What can be more public choice? Nonetheless, these tools are used to explain the decades-long regression of French-Canadians and the de facto discrimination against them (disclaimer: I actually researched and wrote a book on this).

Not only that, but when the French-Canadians started to catch-up which in turn fueled a rise in nationalism, the few public choice economists in Quebec (notably the prominent Jean-Luc Migué and the public choice fellow-traveler Albert Breton) were amongst the first to denounce the rise of nationalism and reversed linguistic discrimination (supported by the state) as nothing else than a public narrative aimed at justifying rent-seeking attempts by the nationalists (see here and here for Breton and here and here for Migué). One of these economists, Migué, was actually one of my key formative influence and someone I consider a friend (disclaimer: he wrote a blurb in support of the French edition of my book).

Think about this for a second : the economists of the public choice tradition in Quebec defended both the majority and the minority against politically-motivated abuses. Let me repeat this : public choice tools have been used to explain/criticize attempts by certain groups to rent-seek at the expense of the majority and the minority.

How can you square that with the simplistic approach of MacLean?

Buchanan Inspired Great Research on Discrimination and Racism

If Buchanan didn’t write about race, he did set up the tools to explain and analyze it. As I pointed out above, I consider myself in this tradition as most of my research is geared towards explaining institutions that cause certain groups of individuals to fall behind or pull ahead.  A large share of my conception of institutions and how state action can lead to predatory actions against both minorities and majorities comes from Buchanan himself!  Nevermind that, check out who he inspired who has published in top journals.

For example, take the case of the beautifully written articles of Jennifer Roback who presents racism as rent-seeking. She sets out the theory in an article in Economic Inquiry , after she used a case study of segregated streetcars in the Journal of Economic HistoryA little later, she consolidated her points in a neat article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public PolicyShe built an intellectual apparatus using public choice tools to explain the establishment of discrimination against blacks and how it persisted for long.

Consider also one of my personal idols, Robert Higgs who is a public-choice fellow traveler who wrote Competition and Coerciowhich considers the topic of how blacks converged (very slowly) with whites in hostile institutional environment. Higgs’ treatment of institutions is well in line with public choice tools and elements advanced by Buchanan and Tullock.

The best case though is The Origins and Demise of South African Apartheid by Anton David Lowenberg and William H. Kaempfer. This book explicitly uses a public choice to explain the rise and fall of Apartheid in South Africa.

Contemporaries that Buchanan admired were vehemently anti-racist

Few economists, except maybe economic historians, know of William Harold Hutt. This is unfortunate since Hutt produced one of the deepest and most thoughtful economic criticism of Apartheid in South Africa, The Economics of the Colour Bar This book stands tall and while it is not the last word, it generally is the first word on anything related to Apartheid – a segregation policy against the majority that lasted nearly as long as segregation in the South.  This writing, while it earned Hutt respect amongst economists, made him more or less personae non grata in his native South Africa.

Oh, did I mention that Hutt was a public choice economist? In 1971, Hutt published Politically Impossible which has been an underground classic in the public choice tradition. Unfortunately, Hutt did not have the clarity of written expression that Buchanan had and that book has been hard to penetrate.  Nonetheless, the book is well within the broad public choice tradition.  He also wrote an article in the South African Journal of Economics which expanded on a point made by Buchanan and Tullock in the Calculus of Consent. 

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention the best part. Buchanan and Hutt were mutual admirers of one another. Buchanan cited Hutt’s work very often (see here and here) and spoke with admiration of Hutt (see notably this article here by Buchanan and this review of Hutt’s career where Buchanan is discussed briefly).

If MacLean wants to try guilt by (inexistent) association, I should be excused from providing redemption by (existent) association.  Not noting these facts that are easily available shows poor grasp of the historiography and the core intellectual history.

Simply Put

Buchanan inspired a research agenda regarding how states can be used for predatory purposes against minorities and majorities which has produced strong interpretations of racism and discrimination. He also associated with vehement and admirable anti-racists like William H. Hutt and inspired students who took similar positions. I am sure that if I were to assemble a list of all the PhD students of Buchanan, I would find quite a few who delved into the deep topic of racism using public choice tools. I know better and I did not spend three years researching Buchanan’s life. Nancy MacLean has no excuse for these oversights.

A Short Note on “Net Neutrality” Regulation

Rick Weber has a good note lashing out against net neutrality regulation. The crux of his argument is that there are serious costs to consumers in terms of getting content slower to enforced net neutrality. But even if we ignore his argument, what if regulation isn’t even necessary to preserve the benefits of net neutrality (even though there really never was net neutrality as proponents imagine it to begin with, and it has nothing to do with fast lanes but with how content providers need to go through a few ISPS)? In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would

In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would happen in the absence of regulatory intervention is not actually profitable for ISPs to pursue, and has failed in the past. As Timothy Lee wrote for the Cato Institute back in 2008:

The fundamental difficulty with the “fast lane” strategy is that a network owner pursuing such a strategy would be effectively foregoing the enormous value of the unfiltered content and applications that comes “for free” with unfiltered Internet access. The unfiltered internet already offers breathtaking variety of innovative content and application, and there is every reason to expect things to get even better as the availabe bandwidth continues to increase. Those ISPs that continue to provide their users with faster, unfiltered access to the Internet will be able to offer all of this content to their customers, enhancing the value of their pipe at no additional cost to themselves.

In contrast, ISPs that chose not to upgrade their customers’ Internet access but instead devote more bandwidth to a proprietary “walled garden” of affiliated content and applications will have to actively recruit each application or content provider that participates in the “fast lane” program. In fact, this is precisely the strategy that AOL undertook in the 1990s. AOL was initially a propriety online service, charged by the hour, that allowed its users to access AOL-affiliated online content. Over time, AOL gradually made it easier for customers to access content on the Internet so that, by the end of the 1990s, it was viewed as an Internet Service Provider that happened to offer some propriety applications and content as well. The fundamental problem requiring AOL to change was that content available on the Internet grew so rapidly that AOL (and other proprietary services like Compuserve) couldn’t keep up. AOL finally threw in the towel in 2006, announcing that the proprietary services that had once formed the core of its online offerings would become just another ad-supported web-site. A “walled garden/slow lane” strategy has already proven unprofitable in the market place. Regulations prohibiting such a business model would be suprlusage.

It looks like it might be the case that Title II-style regulation is a solution in search of a problem. Add to it the potential for ISPs and large companies to lobby regulators to erect other barriers to entry to stop new competitors, like what happened with telecommunications companies under Title II and railroad companies under the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the drawbacks of pure net neutrality Rick pointed out, and it looks like a really bad policy indeed.

From the Comments: Weber, Geloso on inequality

How did I not see these before? Rick chimed in on Zak’s post about inequality and libertarianism awhile back. As usual, he tries to give the opposition the benefit of the doubt:

Taking public choice logic seriously means considering the political distortions/impediments to proposed policy. Taking inequality seriously is the flip side of that. Perceptions of (and attitudes towards) inequality matter and libertarians (and conservatives) would do well to acknowledge it.

I suspect that the problem is that 1) (like any ideology) we’ve got a blind spot, and inequality is in that spot. 2) Our liberal friends can see into that blind spot. 3) They’ve got a blind spot that leads them to make silly policy prescriptions (e.g. ignoring public choice roots of inequality and instead calling for policies that would reduce growth). And as a result, 4) we’re turned off by discussion of inequality before considering it.

Vincent, in the usual French manner, has a different take:

Okay massive disagreement here:

A: Inequality is not something “measurable” in the sense of utility. I chose to be an economist. My income is X% below that of my wife who went to school fewer years than I did and her income grows faster than mine and she will live longer than me (in probabilistic terms given life expectancy differences M/F). According to that definition, my couple is an unequal one and growing more unequal. Yet, I would not trade her job for mine even if her job was twice as remunerative (she is an attorney). I chose a path of lesser income because it made me happy. Income maximization was, in that case, not synonymous with utility maximization. By definition, rich societies will have more cases like that since gains in marginal utility may not be associated with marginal gains in monetary income. See the issue of the backward-bending labor supply curve.

B: The literature on linking growth to inequality is VERY weak. Look at the empirical papers, the results often depend on the choice of variables and the time window. It NEVER accounts for what I mentioned in point A. More importantly, there is NO THEORETICAL LINK with neoclassical theory on this (with the notable exception of Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles and I am working on a paper tackling their logic) that is axiomatically consistent. An empirical observation without a theory that is logically sound (the most repeated is the general Keynesian argument about consumption, but that is very weak and that rebuttal is powerful in the theoretical papers) is basically rubbish.

C: The Great Gatsby Curve is also rubbish since most of the past observations are based on the weird assumptions that mobility based on father-sons is a proper estimate to compare with modern estimates. You can consult the very convincing rebuttals made by Scott Winship. Moreover, the Great Gatsby curve is again a case of empirical observations without theory. I don’t need any of this story to see that mobility is down (modestly) at the same time that labor market restrictions are up.

There is more discussion, too.

What makes robust political economy different?


I encountered what would later become important elements of Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy in two articles that he wrote on the limits of deliberative democracy, and the relative merits of market processes, for social and ethical discovery, as well as a short book Mark wrote with John Meadowcroft, Rescuing Social Capital from Social Democracy. This research program inspired me to start my doctorate and pursue an academic career.  Why did I find robust political economy so compelling? I think it is because it chimed with my experience of encountering the limits of neo-classical formal models that I recount in my chapter, ‘Why be robust?’, of a new book, Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order.

While doing my master’s degree in 2009, I took a methodology course in rational choice theory at Nuffield College’s Center for Experimental Social Science. As part of our first class we were taken to a brand new, gleaming behavioural economics laboratory to play a repeated prisoners’ dilemma game. The system randomly paired anonymous members of the class to play against each other. We were told the objective of the game was to maximise our individual scores.

Thinking that there were clear gains to make from co-operation and plenty of opportunities to punish a defector over the course of repeated interactions, I attempted to co-operate on the first round. My partner defected. I defected a couple of times subsequently to show I was not a sucker. Then I tried co-operating once more. My partner defected every single time in the repeated series.

At the end of the game, we were de-anonymised and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that I had the lowest score in the class. My partner had the second lowest. I asked her why she engaged in an evidently sub-optimal strategy. She explained: ‘I didn’t think we were playing to get the most points. I was just trying to beat you!’

The lesson I took away from this was not that formal models were wrong. Game theoretic models, like the prisoners’ dilemma, are compelling and productive analytical tools in social science, clarifying the core of many challenges to collective action. The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how given certain situations, or rules of the game, self-interested agents will be stymied from reaching optimal or mutually beneficial outcomes. But this experience suggested something more complex and embedded was going on even in relatively simple social interactions.

The laboratory situation replicated the formal prisoners’ dilemma model as closely as possible with explicit rules, quantified ‘objective’ (though admittedly, in this case, low-value) payoffs, and a situation designed to isolate players as if they were prisoners in different cells. Yet even in these carefully controlled circumstances, it turns out that the situation is subject to multiple interpretations and understandings.

Whatever the textual explanation accompanying the game, the score on the screen could mean something different to the various players. The payoffs for the representative agents in the game were not the same as the payoffs in the minds of the human players. In a sense, my partner and I were unwittingly playing different games (although I lost within either rules of the game!).

When we engage with the social world, it is not only the case that our interests may not align with other people. Social interaction is open-ended. We do not know all the possible moves in the game, and we do not know much about the preference set of everyone else who is playing. Indeed, neither they nor we know what a ‘complete’ set of preferences and payoffs would look like, even of our own. We can map out a few options and likely outcomes through reflection and experience but even then we may face outcomes we do not anticipate. As Peter Boettke explains: ‘we strive not only to pursue our ends with a judicious selection of the means, but also to discover what ends that we hope to pursue.’

In addition, the rules of the game themselves are not merely exogenous impositions on us as agents. They are constituted inter-subjectively by the practices, beliefs and values of the actors that are also participants in the social game. As agents, we do not merely participate in the social world. We also engage in its creation through personal lifestyle experimentation, cultural innovation, and establishing shared rules and structures. The social world thus presents inherent uncertainty and change that cannot be captured in a formal model that assumes fixed rules of the game and the given knowledge of the players.

It is these two ideas, both borrowed from the Austrian notion of catallaxy, that makes robust political economy distinct. First, neither our individual ends, nor means of attaining them, are given prior to participation in a collective process of trial and error. Second, the rules that structure how we interact are themselves not given but subject to a spontaneous, evolutionary process of trial and error.

I try to set out these ideas in a recent symposium in Critical Review on Mark Pennington’s book, and in ‘Why be robust?’ in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order edited by Peter Boettke, Chris Coyne and Virgil Storr. The symposium article is available on open access and there is a working paper version of my chapter is available at the Classical Liberal Institute website.