(Not) Disproving Public Choice

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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15 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Re: Asterisk.

    I find it useful to sometimes describe libertarianism as a vector rather than a destination. Are we headed in the direction of more liberty or the direction of more statism?

    Once you get that established, one can then attempt to say that we just need to change the vector and, when we reach an acceptable balance, return to a statist vector if need be.

    For some reason, people get hung up on the whole “you think the vector should be continued until *WHERE*???” is reason enough to not change the vector at all… so, in certain company, I try to discuss only the vector, rather than where that vector would necessarily lead if allowed to continue indefinitely.Report

    • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      But what if you’re talking to someone who considers that a false dichotomy? Who considers “statism” to not have an oppositional relationship to liberty, or at least no more of one than the (oft-tyrannical) Market does ?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Joseph FM
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        They tend to start talking about positive rights at that point, and I start to talk about negative rights, and then they tend to start implying things about my character.

        Usually.Report

        • Avatar Katherine in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          Jaybird –

          I think the reason for this is that left-ish non-libertarians tend to see things other than the state as capable of infringing on liberty.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Katherine
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            says:

            Probably. But when I start talking about the corporations colluding with the government and barriers to entry preventing competition, they get all upset and explain that if the right people were in charge, they wouldn’t be colluding with the corporations.Report

          • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to Katherine
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            says:

            Well, I do indeed see things other than the State as infringing on liberty, as well as seeing any reduction is state power not matched by localized community-based alternatives as inviting external corporations to take on all the coercive power given up by the state. But as you are by far one of the best commenters here, Jaybird, I would never question your character. 🙂Report

  2. Avatar Consumatopia
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    says:

    Sure, if you weaken public choice theory from a prediction that narrow interests will triumph over broad interests into a prediction that narrow interests can make it more difficult for broad interests to succeed, then Publius doesn’t disprove public choice theory. He does, however, disprove the version of public choice theory that would imply libertarianism. After all, if it’s just a matter of the right thing to do being harder then the wrong thing, then we just need to work harder. That the final legislation will always be to some degree imperfect implies nothing about whether this outcome is better than that the market would have found by itself in the absence of government. At least, it makes no such implication unless public choice theory is combined with some naivete about the likelihood of markets to maximize welfare.Report

  3. Avatar Joseph FM
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    says:

    Well, I think that anyone who really cares about an issue probably believes that there is at least one narrow interest group whose interests align with what they consider to be the public good, and if not than they can create one. So it’s not that public choice theory is wrong, per se, just that it’s irrelevant unless you’re somehow committed to the law not benefiting anyone more than anyone else.

    Which I suppose is just a different way of saying what Consumatopia said.

    And as for libertarianism not being “too idealistic”, I would say that as professed by most it puts far too much faith in a “free market” that is not really free at all but dependent on corporate power structures that inevitably lead to oligarchy and what E.D. referred to as “modal monopolization”.Report

  4. Avatar Consumatopia
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    says:

    This might be orthogonal to libertarian vs. socialism arguments, but I think a more compelling critique of rational choice theory is not that it’s too cynical but that it’s too idealistic–it assumes that people are rational, that people will do what is in their own best interest, so all that is required for an institution to function properly is to see that incentives are arranged properly.

    That’s wrong, and not in the way Publius is talking about, but in the way behavioral economists and psychologists talk about, in the ways you could read about in “Nudge” or “Predictably Irrational”–certain environmental designs will tend to encourage people to behave in certain ways, even if those ways don’t maximize their selfish interest.

    In that way I think your equation of public choice theory with libertarianism is wrong–a behavioral economist could be a libertarian, but they would have difficulty with public choice theory.

    Did anyone see the Adam Curtis documentary “The Trap”?Report

    • Avatar Consumatopia in reply to Consumatopia
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      says:

      “In that way I think your equation of public choice theory with libertarianism is wrong–a behavioral economist could be a libertarian, but they would have difficulty with public choice theory.”

      Sorry to reply to myself, but I’ve got an example here. Lord Acton’s famous line “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, is consistent with libertarianism and behavioral economics, but it’s not an example of rational choice theory. Rational choice theorists are inclined to favor strong executives over strong legislatures. As long as the executive is ultimately accountable to the voters (or to the shareholders), then it’s in the executive’s interest to do what’s best for the most people.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Consumatopia
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      says:

      I think that may be a fair critique of some elements of public choice theory. However, it’s important to note that not all public choice theory is rational choice theory – there is a distinctly Hayekian strain of public choice theory (to which I am particularly sympathetic, as one would expect) that emphasizes the imperfect knowledge of the legislator and/or voter. But the result of this is the same – narrow interest groups wind up dominating policy.

      Even to the extent you’re dealing with rational choice theory, though, I think the general response is that legislators act in their rational self-interest based on the information to which they have ready access.

      Either way, the central insight of public choice theory is just that it is inevitable that narrow interests will have an inherent advantage in the legislative and regulatory process over the public interest. I don’t think public choice theory would deny that occasionally this can be overcome, at least to a certain extent (and assuming that you can objectively identify the “public interest” on an issue in the first place). Rather the issue is that no matter who you have “in charge,” narrow interests are going to dominate on the vast majority of issues.Report

    • Avatar tgirsch in reply to Consumatopia
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      says:

      I think a more compelling critique of rational choice theory is not that it’s too cynical but that it’s too idealistic–it assumes that people are rational, that people will do what is in their own best interest, so all that is required for an institution to function properly is to see that incentives are arranged properly.

      Agreed, wholeheartedly. The skepticism of government that pervades libertarianism is, on balance, a good thing. The problem is the underlying assumption that things would be better without it. As you note, in order to work, libertarianism (and “free market” capitalism more generally) relies on people to behave in ways in which we know they will not.

      So while it’s appropriately cynical about the motives and actions of those in power, it’s nowhere near cynical enough about the ability of the individual to truly look out for his or her own long-term best interests (never mind the dubious presumption that the long-term best interests of the individual are also in the long-term interests of the society at large).

      More transparent, effective, and accountable government is what’s needed, not “less” government.Report

  5. Avatar Antiquated Tory
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    says:

    I’ve been reading Fernand Braudel’s The Perspective of the World (“Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century”, vol. 3) and its part of his thesis that every center of the European capitalist world-economy, from Venice to Great Britain, involved governmental support of a monopolistic oligarchy rather than an open, competitive market. There was still room for vigorous competition between oligarchs, and in sectors that did not threaten their oligarchy. But government policy included as its goal making the very rich even richer. Most of these systems were quite good at regressive taxation of the poor, too. On the other hand, he implies that these relations were quite useful if not necessary to becoming the center of a world-economy. And for all its shortcomings, being a center, and even being a much-put-upon worker in the center (whose wages were unlikely to keep up with the rise of the cost of living except during a recession), beat Hell out of being in the periphery.Report

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