Andrew Hartman has an essay at The Baffler arguing that “libertarianism is a political philosophy shot through with white supremacy. Public choice theory, a technical language nominally about human behavior and incentives, helps ensure that blacks remain shackled.”
I have pointed out before that I am not a libertarian. I have been critical of libertarians on several occasions (for instance, here and here) . I am not associated with George Mason, not paid by the Koch brothers, and not really a big fan of James Buchanan. So why bother writing this? I do have an interest in public choice, and I find the recent attempts to bind racism, Buchanan, public choice, libertarianism, and the Koch brothers into a neat little bundle ridiculous.
Below are quotes from Hartman’s essay (in bold) and my responses to them.
IN DECEMBER 1992, AN OBSCURE ACADEMIC JOURNAL published an article by economists Alexander Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, titled “The Public Choice Theory of John C. Calhoun.” Tabarrok and Cowen, who teach in the notoriously libertarian economics department at George Mason University, argued that the fire-breathing South Carolinian defender of slaveholders’ rights had anticipated “public choice theory,” the sine qua non of modern libertarian political thought.
That obscure academic journal is The Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. While it may not be The Baffler, it has been around for over 150 years, and Nobel prize winners, such as Oliver Williamson, Douglass North and Ronald Coase have published in it.
Public choice theory, which grew in stature across the late twentieth century and is now a bedrock conservative doctrine marketed to right-wing policymakers by the billionaire Koch brothers, has indeed tilted the scales of justice in favor of the white, rich, and powerful.
Libertarians seem unaware that Buchanan’s public choice theory is the thing without which their philosophy cannot exist. Milton Friedman does not refer to Buchanan or public choice in Capitalism and Freedom. Robert Nozick does not mention Buchanan or public choice in Anarchy, State and Utopia. David Boaz can put together a 600 page Libertarian Reader that has just a handful of references to public choice and no readings from Buchanan or Tullock. On a personal note, I was once invited to a lunch where John Allison former head of BB&T and a well-known libertarian spoke. I remember him talking a lot about Aristotle, but I don’t recall any mention of Buchanan or any other public choice theorists. I’m not suggesting that there are not libertarians who like Buchanan’s work, but I don’t see a case for the claim that it is regarded as an essential ingredient.
In marking Calhoun’s political philosophy as the crucial antecedent of public choice theory, Tabarrok and Cowen unwittingly confirmed what critics have long maintained: libertarianism is a political philosophy shot through with white supremacy. Public choice theory, a technical language nominally about human behavior and incentives, helps ensure that blacks remain shackled.
Cowen and Tabarok did not mark Calhoun as a crucial antecedent of public choice. To the contrary, they argue that economists have ignored Calhoun. It would be more accurate to say that they argue that although Calhoun did not influence the development of public choice theory, there are some interesting similarities. They note some of these similarities, but also point to significant differences. Including the differences that enabled him to include support for slavery in his philosophy.
The sheer volume and intensity of these protests suggest that MacLean’s observations have hit a nerve. And by historicizing the putatively neutral and scientific character of Buchanan’s research, MacLean has apparently shaken the pediment supporting the altar of this libertarian saint.
Apparently, Hartman regards it as noteworthy that calling someone’s friend a racist would strike a nerve. I’m not sure what to make of that. As for neutral. I don’t know of anyone who would argue that Buchanan’s work was neutral. Buchanan had values that he argued for throughout his career. There is just no evidence that racism was one of them.
Just as Calhoun developed his novel political philosophy in response to the growing fear among his class of southern slaveholders that a Northern majority might seek to abolish slavery, Buchanan’s public choice theory was an innovative approach to resisting federal enforcement of civil rights in the South.
Hartman simply parrots MacLean here. They use innuendo to create a link between Buchanan and segregation, while ignoring the well documented intellectual context in which Buchanan was working. Buchanan was one of a number of people in the 1950s and 1960s working on applying economic or rational choice methods to the analysis of politics.
Buchanan saw his work as part of this broader movement. The following quotes are from a talk he gave on public choice theory at Hillsdale College in 2003
“Public choice should be understood as a research program rather than a discipline or even a subdiscipline of economics. Its origins date to the mid-20th century, and viewed retrospectively, the theoretical “gap” in political economy that it emerged to fill seems so large that its development seems to have been inevitable. Nations emerging from World War II, including the Western democracies, were allocating between one-third and one-half of their total product through political institutions rather than through markets. Economists, however, were devoting their efforts almost exclusively to understanding and explaining the market sector.” He goes on to explain that he “entered this discussion with a generalized critique of the analysis generated by the Arrow Black approach.” He also describes the 19th century thinker who influenced his work. No, it was not Calhoun. It was Knut Wicksell.
Oddly, Hartman cites S.M. Amadae, but seems to have missed Amadae’s description of this broader context, Amadae describes Buchanan’s early essays as responses to the work of Ken Arrow and his Calculus of Consent (with Gordon Tullock) as “a new analysis of the rapidly forming study of politics that had been articulated by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Duncan Black, Arrow, and Arrow’s student Anthony Downs.” (Amadae 136)
Buchanan was part of a movement to develop a rational choice approach to politics. He also had normative views about what government should do. These beliefs were essential to James Buchanan, but not central to public choice. Being interested in a rational choice approach to politics does not require that one hold any specific set of normative beliefs. A rational choice approach to politics has been followed by people as disparate views of what should be as James Buchanan, Amartya Sen, Howard Rosenthal and Jon Elster.
Other people involved in the development of a rational choice approach to politics, such as Anthony Downs, Amartya Sen and Mancur Olson, also viewed Buchanan’s work as part of this broader movement and engaged his arguments in their work.
If Hartman is right, then he and MacLean have seen through a false facade that fooled all of these other scholars. Buchanan somehow managed to hide his true motives from all of them, tricking them into believing that, like them, he was trying to understand collective decision making, when in fact he was simply working to preserve race based segregation.
As opposed to wishing to free the masses from a state controlled by the capitalist elite, Buchanan wished to free the capitalist elite from a state controlled by the unruly masses. And this returns us, suitably enough, to John C. Calhoun.
Public choice theory is interesting and important because recognizing that the state is composed of human beings means that the state can be controlled by an elite that oppresses the masses or a majority that oppresses a minority. The outcome depends upon the institutions for making public choices. Some of us hope that it is possible to have institutional arrangements that protect the majority from a despotic elite and protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
In the end, there is no evidence for Hartman’s argument and considerable evidence against it. Public choice theory did not develop out of the work of Calhoun nor was it an outgrowth of attempts to preserve segregation in Virginia. Buchanan was influential in the development of public choice, but public choice theory is not synonymous with the thought of James Buchanan. Buchanan and public choice theory are not the sine qua non of modern libertarianism. In fact there is no necessary connection between public choice and any set of normative beliefs.
In the end, I am puzzled why Hartman would choose to write an essay about something that he obviously has so little interest in? He doesn’t appear to have made any attempt to learn anything about the history of public choice theory beyond reading MacLean. He could have written a better informed essay if he had read the Wikipedia page on public choice.