Public Choice and "Privilege"

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.


  1. The_Big_W:

    Of course it the opposite of how you view public choice theory, you're a libertarian, and MacLean is a lying bitch....

  2. Jerryskids:

    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.

    The cynic in me assumes the primary objective of government programs, regardless of their stated objectives, is to enlarge government programs, suck up more resources and employ more administrators. Public choice assumes you're interested in helping people get what they want more efficiently, progressives are only interested in what people *should* want - namely, what they'd want if they were as enlightened as progressives.

  3. JoncCB:

    So i checked the source and it's definately "Munger (2018)", pretty sure it should be "Munger (2017)" but there you are. Not a typo this time! :)

  4. Peabody:

    Haven't you learned? It's much easier to win an argument when you can re-define the opponents position.

  5. August Hurtel:

    I don't think the mountains of text written about her in recent days has done any good.
    If you are in her caste, you need to fight her. Make racism a dirty word. Think about it- you don't need the word racist to describe bad policy. It is only ever ascribed as motivation for actions, and those actions can be analyzed themselves.
    She deserves ridicule and ostracism, and the caste needs to start policing itself, before things get worse. You do realize that, in the law, white men have been systematically discriminated against for longer than I've been alive, yet the nut jobs out there keep saying the structural racism is aimed at minorities?
    If academics can't police their own, they will find themselves- at the very least, defunded. And it becomes more and more likely it's going to be the whole caste, the longer this stuff goes on.
    She wants to destroy public choice theory. I doubt she's really misunderstanding it, but rather applying her leftist morality to it. It is not-left, so she must slander it and make it unacceptable.

    Her behavior should be unacceptable. Public choice theory can be analyzed without reference to racism. In fact, people who hold racist ideas can actually be right sometimes. I hear some of them can do math, and they actually come up with the right answer. I suspect the left would prefer we deliberately miscalculate in order to avoid accusations of racism.

    At the very least, when someone calls you are racist, insult them back.

  6. cc:

    She is just mad because she wants her agenda to have absolute control with no silly constitutional constraints. This view has been common in the government, with much over-reaching by regulators.
    Certificates of need for a new medical facility or even for a new moving company, which must be approved by the competition (hospitals and other movers, respectively) are explained by public choice and are clearly stifling of competition and reduce upward mobility.
    One theme of the left is the constant desire to impose constraints (like no ability to build housing in California, rent control, occupational licenses) and then when there is poverty try to take money from the "rich" and distribute it. They don't trust opportunity to create wealth and upward mobility and are in essence ultra-conservative in that they want to freeze the economy rather than allow progress, which they don't trust (at the same time they line up for the latest IPhone).

  7. August Hurtel:

    They don't actually have what we think of as objectives. The process is what they want- basically it all comes down to subversion. When they point to something that is genuinely wrong, we end up thinking they want to fix it, but look at black lives matter. Everything that came out of that will encourage more death, more alienation. I actually thought they could join us in some sort of common cause after Eric Garner died, but instead they went and played dead in the Mall of America.

    Their moral appeals are a ruse.

  8. Heresiarch:

    It's quite rare that any of these popular-politics books steps back and sees the forest. Most, particularly those by "Progressives" involving economics, are extraordinarily superficial. In this case, MacLean completely misses the overarching pattern that the rich and the elite simply spend a lot of time and energy adapting to circumstances, grossly outnumbering and outgunning the regulators and activists, and the poor and messed-up spend a lot of time watching TV. And as you point out, actions taken with noble motives often wind up helping the rich and elite-- they end up as merely another circumstance to adapt to.

    No government rule or action on earth will prevent people's actions, repeated over thousands of iterations, from resulting in a spectrum of wealth.