Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jeff Friedman on James Buchanan and Libertarianism.

Jeff Friedman's new blog began with an attack on libertarians and James Buchanan.   The context was MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains.   Friedman argues that MacLean's work fails as a work of history.   He cites a variety of instances where she misrepresents libertarians.

However, his major criticism of her work is that it exhibits manicheanism.   Her opponents on the right must be entirely evil.   Friedman claims that libertarians, and Buchanan in particular, do the same.   They treat their opponents as wholly evil.   Friedman uses this to share his view that manicheanism is a serious problem of our time.    It is common, even typical, to impute base motives on political opponents.  This would be as opposed to considering their views being some sort of intellectual error that might be corrected through discussion.

Friedman identifies libertarian in a narrow way.   Perhaps it is best known as the position advocated by Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I describe it as Rand/Rothbard libetarianism.   In his premier blog post, Friedman asserts a key position--taxation as theft.    But more fundamentally, coercion is counted as an absolute wrong.   And that includes violations of property rights.  According to Friedman, libertarians are not reflective regarding property rights.   Libertarians just assume that private property rights must be inviolate.

Some of this discussion is all about claiming that MacLean just cannot believe that anyone could possibly believe such absurd notions and that explains her view that all the libertarians are being paid by rich people.   These rich people benefit from keeping government from taking their private property.

If, instead, "libertarian" is understood in a more inclusive way--including, for example, the view of James Buchanan, then all of this just falls apart.   Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, and Buchanan all supported private property and market exchange because it is beneficial to just about everyone.    All of them believe that taxation is appropriate for some purposes.

In other words, none of them just assume that private property rights exist and their violation is evil coercion and none of them take the position that taxation is immoral and must be abolished.

While Buchanan's policy views are in many ways typical for a mainstream libertarian, his political philosophy is a bit unusual.  There are no property rights or market exchange in the Hobbesian state of nature, so it is the social contract that creates property rights and freedom for the more mundane contracts that allow for market exchange.    According to Buchanan, all must be willing to agree to the social contract that generates the constitutional order.    Buchanan favors private property rights and freedom of contract because it will benefit everyone and so it would be sensible for them to agree to it as part of the social contract.

But that doesn't mean that the agreed constitution would prohibit the government from imposing any regulation or collecting any taxes--it is just that everyone benefits from a system with private property and market exchange and with necessary taxation and regulation limited by constitutional rules.  

It is also important to understand that in Buchanan's view a sensible constitution will allow for regulation or taxation without a unanimous vote.   It is true, however, that 50% plus 1 is not essential.   Depending on the issue, it could be more or it even could be less.    Not every political decision will benefit everyone, but the system as a whole should be something that benefits everyone so that they are willing to agree to it.

Buchanan strongly believed that constitutional rules should be designed to protect against selfish voters, politicians, and bureaucrats.   While such rules may interfere with the ability of well meaning voters, politicians and bureaucrats to do good, he believed that it is sensible to protect against the threat of serious harm by political actors with venal motives.

Does public choice assume that all voters, politicians, and bureaucrats are self interested?   That is the near universal analytical assumption as best  I can tell.   What would happen if they were?   And does that pattern of activity fit the data?    It is no different from the economic approach to understanding markets.     What if firms all maximized profits?  What would happen if they did?   Does that fit the data?

My view, which I don't think is unusual in the "Virginia School," is that most people are mostly selfish.   Analysis based upon the assumption of selfishness will explain much of what happens in society, but not all.

A constitution that will work well if everyone is public spirited but fails in the face of selfishness is a disaster waiting to happen.   A constitution that will meet the test of selfish voters and ambitious politicians is not only a safeguard against disaster but will work tolerably well with real people.

My understanding of the market economic system is that it will work tolerably well, even if people are entirely selfish.   It is much better than a system of production and consumption that would only work if most people were mostly public spirited.   And a market system is better than the alternatives with real people, most of whom, are mostly, though not totally, selfish.    I agree with Buchanan that a proper constitution constrains voters, politicians and bureaucrats in a similar way, as best can be managed.