17 July 2014

(Classical) Liberalism and Libertarianism (Public Choice)

Nathan Schlueter has a well-written piece in the August issue of First Things magazine that you can read here. (Warning: behind paywall.) Schlueter's title is straightforward: "Libertarian Delusions: Exposing the Flaws in Libertarian Thinking." I've previously expressed my reservations about libertarianism as a political philosophy, which you can read here, here, and here. My concerns are several but a principal one is that a political philosophy without an anthropology and ethical framework is a dead end at best and a wide road to perdition at worst. Thankfully, most libertarians, like Randy Barnett, have a working version of both and so avoid the dangers of an "ideal type" libertarian.

Schlueter constructs such an ideal type from three fundamental libertarian contentions: the libertarian claim of self-ownership, its belief that the powers of the state are no greater than that of individuals, and that the limitation of individuals remain the case whether acting in the privae or public sphere. This latter insight falls under the rubric of public choice theory.

Schlueter deals well with the first two points but I want to focus on the third because I am making use of public choice theory in an article that will be presented at a symposium on municipal bankruptcy at Campbell University Law School in October. (Working title: "Who Bears the Burden? The Place of Municipal Residents in Chapter 9." It's a follow-on to Who Bears the Cost? The Necessity of Taxpayer Participation in Chapter 9 that you can download here.

According to Schlueter, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock should be regarded as the founders of public choice theory. FWIW, I would include Paul Samuelson and Charles Thiebout among them. In any event, as Schlueter explains, public choice theory is the application of the insights (and limitations) of neo-classical economics to the workings of civil government:
Seen through the ... lens of economics, political activity is a form of economic exchange, and the state is an external means for realizing private and individual values. Public-choice theory purports to explain political action not as we would like it to be but as it actually occurs: shady backroom deals, pork-barrel politics, logrolling, administrative abuses of power, etc.
Such a focus on the phenomena of political life runs the danger of eviscerating the notion of public service. In other words, libertarianism as applied through public choice theory turns all political activity into another market. Such an approach goes further than the often-justified skepticism political life engenders and turns cynicism into a virtue:
The state exists merely as an external means for realizing private and individual ends. In the words of James Buchanan, “collective action is viewed as the action of individuals when they choose to accomplish purposes collectively rather than individually, and the government is seen as nothing more than the set of processes, the machine, which allows such collective action to take place.” Conceived in this way, state action is legitimate only when, like a market exchange, it satisfies the preferences of every individual.
Schlueter overstates the case a bit. Libertarians are not, as he notes in his essay, anarcho-capitalists. His assertion is true of libertarians only if the government action is not one necessary to vindicate life, liberty, or property. Outside those areas, Schlueter's characterization of libertarianism is correct.

Unanimous consent will never be reached in a polity of significant size so it turn out that in a world of public choice most of what government does is a quid for the quo of political support (votes, campaign contributions, etc.) In other words, from the public choice point of view, unless it is protecting one of the legitimate troika of individual interests, civil government is putting its coercive powers up for sale to the highest bidder.

But note: this is not an empirical conclusion but one that the theory entails. If public choice theory is true, then resentment of virtually all government action is justified. But what if public choice theory is not true; instead, what if there is a legitimate role for government as such? Go here, here, here, and here to read some earlier animadversions on this possibility.

In short, in Schlueter's account, classical liberalism has within it the resources to ground a small positive role for the modern civil state. You can read what I think about the subject and how such liberalism (as opposed to libertarianism and contemporary "progressivism") rests upon Christian foundations in Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here).

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