Politics in reality, not middle school civics class

I doubt James Buchanan is well-known among Catholics but he should be, especially if we are interested in pursuing political means for particular ends. Buchanan won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1986 “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” Sans jargon, Buchanan was a pioneer of the theory of public choice, which analyzes the behavior of public actors (e.g., legislators) and decision-making (e.g., democracy) using the tools and understanding usually used with private actors (e.g., consumers, investors, entrepreneurs) and decision-making (e.g., markets).

As with other economists like Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman, most people know James Buchanan not for these technical achievements but for other, more popular, ideas. You can summarize Buchanan’s popular contributions in the subtitle of one of his essays: “Politics Without Romance.” Understanding Buchanan seems necessary especially considering that Church leaders occasionally (or too frequently, IMHO) seek government remedies for particular problems (like fighting poverty, passing legislation, immigration reform, “fair” trade rules, protecting jobs or wages, etc.) while simultaneously adhering to a “romantic” model of the political process. “Romantic” politics is the sort we were all taught in grade school: disinterested public servants selflessly giving their time and effort all for the common good. The reality, as Buchanan and public choice theory demonstrates, is (not surprisingly) that politicians are people too; they have beliefs, biases, desires, and respond to incentives like the rest of us. Adhering to the “romantic” political belief in sinless philosopher kings serves no useful purpose if we are at all to engage in politics as it really is.

Some tantalizing quotes from “Politics Without Romance:”

  • “If the government is empowered to grant monopoly rights or tariff protection to one group, at the expense of the general public or of designated losers, it follows that potential beneficiaries will compete for the prize. And since only one group can be rewarded, the resources invested by other groups-which could have been used to produce valued goods and services-are wasted.”
  • “Much of the growth of the bureaucratic or regulatory sector of government can best be explained in terms of the competition between political agents for constituency support through the use of promises of discriminatory transfers of wealth.”
  • “It is necessary to appreciate the prevailing mindset of social scientists and philosophers at the midpoint of the 20th century when public choice arose. The socialist ideology was pervasive, and was supported by the allegedly neutral research programme called ‘theoretical welfare economics’, which concentrated on identifying the failures of observed markets to meet idealized standards. In sum, this branch of inquiry offered theories of market failure. But failure in comparison with what? The implicit presumption was always that politicized corrections for market failures would work perfectly. In other words, market failures were set against an idealized politics…[P]ublic choice became a set of theories of governmental failures, as an offset to the theories of market failures.”
  • “A more provocative criticism of public choice centres on the claim that it is immoral. Critics argue that people acting politically -for example, as voters or as legislators-do not behave as they do in markets. Individuals are differently motivated when they are choosing ‘for the public’ rather than for themselves in private choice capacities… Public choice…incorporates the presumption that persons do not readily become economic eunuchs as they shift from market to political participation. Those who respond predictably to ordinary incentives in the marketplace do not fail to respond at all when they act as citizens.”
  • “In other words, governments everywhere overreached. They tried to do more than the institutional framework would support. This record of failure, both in the socialist and welfare states, came to be recognized widely, commencing in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s…[P]ublic choice exerted major influence in providing a coherent understanding and interpretation of what could be everywhere observed. The public directly sensed that collectivistic schemes were failing, that politicization did not offer the promised correctives for any and all social ills, that governmental intrusions often made things worse rather than better.”

James Buchanan died on January 9th at age 93.


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