Feb 20, 2018

Don’t Be So Quick to Dismiss Public Choice (But Stop Caricaturing Autism)

Skoble addresses Nancy MacLean’s attempt to pathologize libertarianism.

On February 7th, 2018, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean said that classical liberals must be on the autism spectrum to have so little empathy or solidarity with others.  Never mind that these claims are as ludicrous as they are easily disproven, one thing about this incident that stuck in my mind was what a great illustration it was of the dictum that politics degrades the character.  For one thing, if a prominent academic had disparaged people with autism in any other context than bashing libertarians, the vast majority of the intelligentsia would (rightly) be outraged, demanding that she apologize and that she learn something about autism.  She seems to think libertarians are evil because they lack empathy (which is false), and people with autism lack empathy (also false), so there must be a connection (which doesn’t follow anyway). But since it had the context it had, the incident has been entirely ignored by mainstream outlets.  She gets a free pass on abhorrent and mendacious behavior because she’s perceived to be on the “right team.”

It’s not even clear why MacLean and her defenders would see classical liberalism this way in the first place.  It’s an extremely common caricature, of course.  The conversation goes like this:

A: I am favor of policy P because that will help poor people.
B: I don’t think policy P will help poor people; might even make things worse.
A: Oh, you must hate poor people.

MacLean’s particular approach to attacking classical liberalism is to attack one school of thought in economic analysis, the “public choice” approach pioneered by Nobel laureate James Buchanan.  This methodology isn’t identical with “libertarianism”; accepting one is neither necessary nor sufficient for accepting the other.  They’re certainly compatible, however: public choice insights often do buttress libertarian claims.  The Official Story™ about government is that our elected leaders are entirely altruistic public servants who deliberate together about how best to produce the Common Good.  Power is thereby wielded against the stupid and wicked to make everyone better off.  The libertarian, by contrast, is skeptical of power, and thinks that where it’s justified at all, there has to be a very high bar to warrant coercion.  Public choice analysis in this context is friendly towards the conclusion the libertarian is inclined to draw: that political actors are as self-interested as anyone else, and that the deliberations do not necessarily serve the common good, but rather vested interests with power and influence over the legislative process.  For example, this methodology helps explain why there might be tariffs or quotas on imported products such as sugar.  It harms the average consumer, but benefits domestic sugar producers. 

But hang on, this realization isn’t friendly only to libertarians – it’s friendly to the progressive left as well.  There’s nothing uniquely libertarian about thinking that a policy that enriches the few at the expense of the many is the opposite of good government.  This seems like something progressive and classical liberals would agree about (conservatives too, for that matter).  In the history of progressive thought going back to Herbert Croly, though, there’s a tradition of thinking that the cause of bad policies like this one is bad actors in positions of power.  This means the solution is to get better people elected.  What public choice analysis demonstrates is that it’s not any different with different people.  This explains why most of these policies don’t change from one election cycle to the next.  There’s no reason why progressives can’t benefit from the insights of public choice to analyze why there’s mass incarceration of African-Americans, or why fast food seems more readily available than healthy food, or why health care costs have skyrocketed. 

But because classical liberals saw the value of this methodology more quickly, the “team” mentality took over.  So if libertarianism is evil, public choice theory must be evil too, and to undermine libertarianism, it must be a good idea to attack a public choice theorist.  (As it happens, MacLean’s attacks turn out to be fabrications about segregationist attitudes Buchanan didn’t have, and now the spurious claim about libertarianism being caused by autism.)  But with less of a tribalist mentality, the progressive left might have been able to benefit from a more robust analysis of problems they care about, which, ironically, classical liberals also care about. Classical liberals would likely be useful allies to progressives on these issues.

If there’s one thing we can all learn from the public choice framework, whether conservative, libertarian, or progressive, it’s that it is dangerous to think that power is safe provided that the right people wield it (as anyone who has read or seen The Lord of the Rings could tell you).  As it happens, political leaders are just as susceptible to interest-seeking and rationalization as anyone else.  If the system allows concentrated benefits to be obtained at the expense of dispersed costs, someone will always have an interest in pursuing those benefits, and political actors will be incentivized to provide them.  People of varying political persuasions should be able to discern the way this problem works, and work to eliminate the incentives, rather than on ensuring that the “better” people face them. 

When prominent academics resort to fabrication and name-calling, rather than engaging on the substance of arguments, it’s understandable to despair of any rational discourse.  On my more optimistic days, I retain hope that reasonable minds will prevail and we can work together to address problems of mutual concern.  That would be easier if people didn’t conflate  methodology with ideology, or demonize scholars as racists, or attempt to insult them by associating them with people with autism – thereby insulting those with autism as well.