David R. Henderson  

Farrell and Teles on Nancy MacLean

What Bernanke was up against... Democratic ideology unchained...
A deep, historical study of public choice would be welcome, and Buchanan's role in the development of the thought and organizational infrastructure of the right has generally been overlooked. Unfortunately, the book [by Nancy MacLean] is an example of precisely the kind of work on the right that we do not need, and the intellectuals of the left who have praised it are doing their side no favors.
This is from Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, "Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them." Vox, July 14, 2017.

Farrell is definitely a man of the left and this whole article is refreshing and well worth reading.

Another excerpt:

MacLean is undoubtedly correct that the ideas of Buchanan, an economist who taught at George Mason University, and his acolytes are important. Their writings reshaped the way we think about regulation, governments, and markets. For example, public choice economists have argued that many US Department of Agriculture rules for food are intended not to protect consumers, but to protect influential businesses from smaller competitors that have difficulty in complying with these standards. Public choice suggests that regulatory agencies are often "captured" by narrow interests, and that the best solution is often to minimize government bureaucrats' ability to regulate.

By the way, at a forum at the San Francisco Fed in March 1981, two of the main speakers were Robert Hall and the late James Tobin. The discussion was of Reagan's first budget, which had just been released. Tobin, also a man of the left, had criticized many of Reagan's proposed cuts and said that Reagan should have proposed other cuts instead. In Q&A, I asked him what he wanted to cut. The main one he highlighted was farm subsidies.

One final excerpt:

Those on the left might be inclined to think that the libertarian and conservative critics of the book are lashing out, or overemphasizing a few errors, because MacLean has revealed the dark side of one of their heroes and the unsavory modern history of their movement. Or alternatively, as MacLean has publicly claimed is the case, one might see this criticism as a counter-campaign by "Koch operatives" aimed at discrediting her. Yet while we do not share Buchanan's ideology -- and we would love to read a trenchant critical account of the origins of public choice -- we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.

FYI, here is an earlier blog post in which Farrell and I had a reasonably civil disagreement.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Christopher Fleming writes:

David Levy is finishing a book on the history of the Virginia School.

NF writes:

I guess others would say I am left of center, but to me I go with cost/benefit analysis.
My main criticism of the conservative intellectual movement is not the movement but the lack of influence on the GOP. I also think that the vast majority of "job killing" and "minimum cost raising" regulations are at the local and not federal level.

Given that, lets say I wanted to severely curtail occupational licensing across the country. The best way to do it would be at the Federal level - yet that would get criticized by state's rights conservatives. What if I wanted to make it illegal to require apartment complexes to have a certain number of parking spaces per unit? Again, that would actually get conservative push back.

I am fairly Democrat but those are two ideas I would love to enact at the Federal level - yet the desire to enact it at the Federal level makes it a big government overreach issue!

David R. Henderson writes:

I also think that the vast majority of "job killing" and "minimum cost raising" regulations are at the local and not federal level.
I’m not sure I agree. I think of minimum wage, Davis-Bacon, EPA regs that prevent development, FDA regulation. On the other hand, there is, as you say in your next paragraph, occupational licensing. You could add building restrictions and state minimum wages.
I am fairly Democrat but those are two ideas I would love to enact at the Federal level - yet the desire to enact it at the Federal level makes it a big government overreach issue!
Amen. I’m a federalist, but federalism does have its downsides.

Cyril Morong writes:

Some of this criticism of the right or people like Buchanan reminds me of Adam Smith.

He has a passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he refers to “furious zealots” who “impute all their own prejudices” to “the great Judge of the universe.” So if you think your side is always right then the other side is evil and you can do whatever you want in attacking them.


"The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. What may be called the laws of faction have often been laid down by grave authors with still less regard to the rules of justice than what are called the laws of nations. The most ferocious patriot never stated it as a serious question, Whether faith ought to be kept with public enemies?—Whether faith ought to be kept with rebels? Whether faith ought to be kept with heretics? are questions which have been often furiously agitated by celebrated doctors both civil and ecclesiastical. It is needless to observe, I presume, that both rebels and heretics are those unlucky persons, who, when things have come to a certain degree of violence, have the misfortune to be of the weaker party. In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest."

Cyril Morong writes:

There is also research now that suggests that people will give up a chance to make money rather than hear opposing views


David R. Henderson writes:

@Cyril Morong,
Great quote. Thanks.
It reminds me of this part of “If” by Rudyard Kipling:
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

And also this part:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

I remember Ayn Rand’s line in an interview when she was asked about the unfair attacks on her. She said “I don’t write for fools."

Cyril Morong writes:


I had never seen that poem by Kipling or that quote by Rand before. Thanks.


E Smiley writes:

So I've been following the Democracy in Chains drama and up until now I've been largely confused. Does anyone really take this work of speculative fiction seriously? Why are so many of my favorite libertarian commenters expending so much ink on debunking such obvious nonsense?

But then it hit me. No, Jim Buchanan wasn't an arch enemy of democracy. However, if he valued human liberty, HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN.

I don't mean to criticize him. The Public Choice view crystallized some of the foundational arguments in favor of a free society. And certainly today we have the benefit of greater hindsight. But the twin hammer-blows of the Trump and Sanders movements have clearly demonstrated that the glorification of majoritarian decision-making into the pseudo-religion of "democracy" is perhaps the greatest existential menace to liberal society.

MacLean's book, then, maybe isn't really a story about the past (not one that actually happened, anyway) but an anticipation of the future. A future when lovers of freedom finally come to grips with the reality that our greatest obstacle isn't socialism or fascism or Fabianism or oligarchy, but rather the siren song of democracy. Maybe she's just using cardboard cutouts of historical figures as a sort of play that aims to establish a narrative of a battle that's still to come.

Hazel Meade writes:

@E Smiley,
The problem is she perverts the concept "Democracy" to mean ONLY "majority rule". As if democracy cannot mean things such as voluntary neighborhood associations or mutual aid societies. And not only that, but majority rule at as centralized a level as possible. Thus, to MacLean's thinking, local control is LESS (not more) "Democratic" than federal control. Efforts to devolve power to states and localities, are ANTI, not PRO democratic. It's a rather warped and narrow view of what "Democracy" can and should mean. That Democracy can only mean majority rule over as much as possible, over as much geographic and political jurisdiction as possible.

If one takes a less narrow view of what "Democracy" means, the etymology simply means rule by the people. It doesn't necessarily mean voting and majority rule, but could encompass all sorts of varying organization styles from the consensus based decision making of Occupy movements, to prestige-based systems like Wikipedia editors, to local food co-ops and neighborhood associations. The free market itself involves people individually choosing and ruling themselves. Thus, IMO, Craigslist is more "democratic" than the US federal election system.

E Smiley writes:

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