Friday, December 8, 2017

Hartman on Public Choice

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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Some Recent Podcasts

If you are interested in the economy of colonial America listen to two recent episodes of Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World: The Revolutionary Economy and The Politics of Tea. Of course, the politics of tea is about the economics of tea.

If you want to know about the economic divergence between Western Europe and the Middle East listen to Jared Rubin discuss his recent book on Garreth Petersen’s Economics Detective.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in listening to two intellectual historians who do not know anything about public choice theory discuss a book about public choice theory by another intellectual historian who does not know anything about public choice theory you should definitely check out Andrew Hartman and Ray Haberski discussing Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains on Trotsky and the Wild Orchids

Monday, November 13, 2017

New Books in Economic and Business History

The Business History Conference's blog The Exchange has a list of new and forthcoming books in economic and business history. There are several that I am looking forward to reading

Anne Fleming, City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance (Harvard University Press, December 2017)

Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (University of Chicago Press, November 2017)

Naomi R. Lamoreaux and John Joseph Wallis, eds., Organizations, Civil Society, and the Roots of Development(University of Chicago Press, December 2017)

Qian Lu, From Partisan Banking to Open Access: The Emergence of Free Banking in Early Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Palgrave, October 2017)

Laura Philips Sawyer, American Fair Trade: Proprietary Capitalism, Corporatism, and the 'New Competition,' 1890–1940(Cambridge University Press, December 2017) 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Business History's Introspective Mood

Business history appears to be in an introspective mood.

Business History Review has a special issue on debating methodology in business history.

The latest issue of Business History examines the role of narrative in business history.

In First View at Enterprise and Society you can find Water Friedman’s  talk “Recent Trends in Business History: Capitalism, Democracy, and Innovation” from the meeting of the Business History Conference.

In general, business history seems to be an unusually introspective field. 

The introduction to the special issue of Business History Review, for instance, provides this list of recent work on methodology in business history:

“Recent examples include Naomi R. Lamoreaux, “Reframing the Past: Thoughts about Business Leadership and Decision Making under Uncertainty,” Enterprise & Society 2, no. 4 (2001): 632–59; Mary O’Sullivan and Margaret B. W. Graham, “Moving Forward by Looking Backward: Business History and Management Studies,” Journal of Management Studies 47, no. 5 (2010): 775–90; Geoffrey Jones and Walter A. Friedman, “Business History: Time for Debate,” Business History Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 1–8; Daniel M. G. Raff, “How to Do Things with Time,” Enterprise & Society 14, no. 3 (2013): 435–66; Matthias Kipping and Behlül Üsdiken, “History and Organization Studies: A Long-Term View,” in Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods, ed. Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani (New York, 2014), 33–55; Abe de Jong, David Michael Higgins, and Hugo van Driel, “Towards a New Business History?” Business History 57, no. 1 (2015): 5–29; Stephanie Decker, Matthias Kipping, and Daniel Wadhwani, “New Business Histories! Plurality in Business History Research Methods,” Business History 57, no. 1 (2015): 30–40; and Christina Lubinski and Daniel Wadhwani, “Reinventing Entrepreneurial History,” Business History Review (forthcoming).”

Monday, September 25, 2017

New History of Capitalism meets the History of Economic Thought

Jonathan Levy has a paper forthcoming in Business History Review, Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism.” If you have access to the journal it is available on First View. He attempts to develop a definition of capital that is useful for the study of capitalism. I should be grading papers right now so I will make this quick.

Unfortunately, it bears many of the hallmarks of some of the most celebrated work in the new history of capitalism.

1. Misunderstanding basic economics: Here for, for instance, is his description of the problems associated with thinking of capital as a produced means of production

And yet, because it equates capital with a produced physical factor of production, the materialist conception is a highly restrictive definition of capital. For the writing of history, there are chiefly three almost natural consequences of the materialist restriction. First, because of its emphasis on a produced factor of physical production, capital becomes almost synonymous with industrial machinery and equipment. Second, likewise the materialist capital concept abstracts from money—treating monetary and financial dynamics as extrinsic to both capital and the “real economy” in general. Third, for reasons to be explained later, the materialist capital concept is a temporally static concept. Thus, in addition to money it also abstracts from historical time—or at least, in pursuit of analytical clarity, it abstracts from the many eventful historical processes that are extrinsic from the point of view of the physical characteristics of the masses of objects that materialists define as capital.

Reference to a principles of economics textbook would have made clear that capital is not synonymous with industrial machinery and equipment.

2. Use of sources that can at best be described as sloppy. I have been interested in Veblen since I was an undergraduate. Levy seems interested in Veblen as well. When I checked the places where Levy specifically quotes Veblen this is what I found. Levy is in bold  

“At the most abstract level, capital, in this line of thought, is what Thorstein Veblen once called a “pecuniary magnet.”11 (Levy page 5)
“11 Thorstein B. Veblen, “On the Nature of Capital II: Investment, Intangible Assets, and the
Pecuniary Magnate,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 23, no. 1 (1908): 104–36.”

One might think that Veblen used the phrase “pecuniary magnet” in this paper. He did not. He did use the phrase “pecuniary magnate.” But a magnate is not a magnet. Veblen is referring to people, “captains of industry,” not capital. If Veblen ever referred to capital as a pecuniary magnet it was not in the cited paper.

Oddly enough, Berch Berberoglu made this same mistake earlier this year. Since neither references the other one has to conclude that they made the mistake independently.

“By becoming the exclusive legal owners of capitalized goods, capitalists over time had politically and legally “cornered” the market in immaterial “technological expedients.”42(Levy page 14)
42 Thorstein B. Veblen, “Fisher’s Capital and Income,” Political Science Quarterly 23, no. 1 (1908): 117.”

Again, one might think that the quoted phrases appear on page 117; they do not. Like “pecuniary magnet” they do not appear anywhere in the paper.

 “Addressing culture, Veblen argued that capital was merely one economic “method of
doing things” in the world among others.44(Levy page 14)
44 Thorstein B. Veblen, “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 12, no. 4 (1898): 389.”

Levy is at least in the ballpark this time. Veblen uses the phrase “methods of doing things.” He does not, however, use it on page 389. Page 389 is devoted to his critique of the hedonistic conception of man, not an argument that capital was merely one economic method of doing things.

“If capital has no fixed, authentic value, the question becomes, as Veblen put it, “Whose imputation of value is to be accepted?”71 (Levy page 20)
71 Veblen, “Fisher’s Capital and Income,” 120.”

This time Levy almost nailed it. The quote is in the paper, and he only missed the citation by 5 pages; its on page 125.

At what point does putting quotation marks around things that were not a actually said by the person they are attributed to become a problem in historical scholarship.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

I Blame Foner

The author in New York Times  By the Book today was Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones
These are her answers to two of the questions:

What’s the last great book you read?
“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of America Capitalism,” by Edward E. Baptist. It taught me so much about slavery and how slavery enabled America to become America. Every time I left my house after reading it, I saw the world differently. I saw the legacy of human misery underpinning it all.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From “The Half Has Never Been Told”: “All told, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves — 6 percent of the total U.S. population — who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”

In other words, the most interesting thing she has learned from a book recently is an inaccurate assessment of the role of slavery in the American economy that was concocted in Ed Baptist’s imagination and presented in one of the worst books by an academic historian that I have ever read.

I blame Eric Foner. Foner is not the only one to blame, but he certainly deserves a large share of the blame. Foner praised the book in The New York Times and did not point out that Baptist was imply making things up. Foner is a famous historian with a long record of impressive scholarship. It is not unreasonable for non-historians to place their faith in his assessments of work in American history. We all count on recognized experts to give us some guidance in areas that are beyond our personal expertise. Foner, however, failed them. He took a shot at economists, repeated Baptist’s misleading historiography, and failed to note the fundamental flaws in the book.

The flaws truly are fundamental. The claim that slavery was the driving force behind American economic development was central to Baptist’s book. I have seen the book cited on this point by numerous people. Yet Baptist did not actually estimate the importance of slavery; he did not even try. He made a up some numbers, added them up and compared them to an actual estimate of GDP. The way he added up the numbers did not make sense. He is clearly unfamiliar with the problem of double counting or the difference between the sales of newly produced goods and the sales of assets. Even if he had looked in a principles of economics textbook to learn the basics of national income accounting, however, it would not have solved the fundamental problem: he was just making up the numbers. Non-historians are likely say to themselves, “These numbers must be okay; it was reviewed by famous historians, like Eric Foner, and they did not say anything.”  Eric Foner, however, does not have that excuse. Nor do other historians who refused to call bullshit on Baptist. Foner owed the readers of the New York Times a critical reading of the book, and he let them down. Personally, I think this unwillingness to call bullshit on other historians, just because you like their conclusions, is a serious threat to the integrity of history.

As for me, as long as people keep citing his book, I will keep pointing out that Baptist is a charlatan.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Economic History to Read, Listen and Watch


Gregory Clark on Rationally Speaking on What Caused the Industrial Revolution? (and the why it is so difficult to answer that question)

Noel Johnson at the Economics Detective on The French Revolution, Property Rights and the Coase Theorem

Alan Taylor on credit booms and crises in economic history

Deirdre McCloskey on How we got rich