Free exchange … The voice of public choice … James Buchanan, who died on January 9th, illuminated political decision-making … A list of things that Americans judge more favourably than Congress, according to Public Policy Polling, a survey firm, includes colonoscopies, root canals, lice and France. America seems to have stumbled from economic crisis to political paralysis. That would have come as little surprise to James Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist and the architect of "public-choice theory", who died on January 9th, aged 93. – The Economist
Dominant Social Theme: Democracy is terrible but the alternative is even worse.
Free-Market Analysis: James Buchanan is dead and we will not speak ill of the dead – nor should we in the case of the free-market oriented Buchanan.
But we can certainly point out that his death gives The Economist (that most insufferable of all "newspapers"), yet one more opportunity to do what its editors love to do best – ironically deconstruct modern Western political and economic systems with a kind of celebratory ruefulness.
The entire Economist magazine is an exercise in this kind of rhetoric. "Democracy is awful, and here's why … " But no alternatives are offered, nor should there be. The motto of The Economist could be summed up as "Try Harder."
(This is not actually surprising since one of the owners of The Economist, Sir Evelyn Rothschild, has been on a pro-regulation public relations campaign for the past five years. When asked in various media situations why there should be more regulation when it so obviously hasn't worked, he is apt to reply that regulation has not been implemented properly nor applied adequately. In other words, it will work … next time,)
So it is with The Economist, pointing out in its dreadfully witty way what we can learn from the last debacle as we trudge along to the next. Does this sound overly critical? Perhaps. But it is important, in our view, to point this out on occasion because of The Economist's extensive, if ill deserved, reputation for wit and clarity of thought.
It is, of course, a thought magazine, and one of the last remaining ones. Thought magazines were much prized by the power elite in the 20th century, having inordinate power to influence the intelligentsia that then went out and propounded various misguided pronouncements to the hoi polloi of the day.
It all worked … well. The smartest people were quasi-communists and since the leveling meme was so attractive to so many top thinkers, Hollywood could make movies voicing similar sentiments that then set the cultural tone of the day. And so the virtuous circle rotated.
That's how directed history works, you see. The story has to be believable from start to finish. The meme cannot look like it's been inflicted. It has to seem self-generated, like rap or democracy. These are the dominant social themes of the elite. But they won't ever take the credit.
This is one more thing that has been lost in the 21st century. Large parts of the intelligentsia simply don't believe that government poses a good or even feasible alternative to the private economy. And smaller parts of the intelligentsia are actively libertarian.
This is a nightmare for the power elite that has struck back (as we know only too well) in numerous ways. One of the ways we've noted recently has been by seemingly fomenting a kind of neo-national socialism that proclaims the sanctity of the state sans usury and private banking. The model is Hitler's Germany without the overt anti-Semitism – which in most modern iterations is covert.
The goal always is the preservation of the state in some form so that the tool of mercantilism – the single necessary tool in the elite's tool bag – can be effectively utilized. The state can wear a tutu so long as it exists. If it exists, the elites are happy. They can work with it and use it to their own ends.
And so it is with The Economist, the editors of which bash the state every day. People buy the damn magazine – sorry, newspaper – to read its arch rendering of various state institutions and giggle on the way to or from work.
Every article deconstructs a political system or a portion of it and shows how things could be done much better. Thus, you see, the state and state players are mocked in every issue, along with powerful corporatists.
But one thing The Economist editors and writers will never ever do. They will never suggest the alternative.
They will never write a glowing obit for someone like Murray Rothbard, a founding anarcho-capitalist. Rothbard is dead now but he could die a thousand times and never reach the back page of The Economist.
But James Buchanan took the state seriously and devoted his life to its workings, and more importantly, to its failings. He may have disliked the state … but public choice, as a theory, STUDIES the state.
That's good enough for The Economist. Here's an explanation from Wikipedia:
Public choice or public choice theory has been described as "the use of economic tools to deal with traditional problems of political science". Its content includes the study of political behavior. In political science, it is the subset of positive political theory that models voters, politicians, and bureaucrats as mainly self-interested. In particular, it studies such agents and their interactions in the social system either as such or under alternative constitutional rules. These can be represented in a number of ways, including standard constrained utility maximization, game theory, or decision theory. Public choice analysis has roots in positive analysis ("what is") but is often used for normative purposes ("what ought to be"), to identify a problem or suggest how a system could be improved by changes in constitutional rules, the subject of constitutional economics.
Buchanan's economic toolkit, or perversions of it, are used every day to evaluate political programs and the actors behind them. Again, perhaps he did not intend for this outcome – as he believed that optimum solutions were generated out of VOLUNTARY choice – much as F.A. Hayek and other Austrians did. But no matter.
The power elite does not need much to operate. It can hang on by the sliver of a fingernail. But that sliver must justify the state, celebrate its misery and remind us that it is a necessary evil.
Rothbard, in his merry way, dispensed with all of that. Laws are price fixes and price fixes never work as predicted. Anything the state can do via force, voluntarism can accomplish communally via private means.
We're partial to that conclusion, though we do recognize the contributions made by Mr. Buchanan to economic theory.