Cambridge University Press • 1998 • 191 pages • $49.95
William Peterson, a Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar, is Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of Business Philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.
Said Plato: “Morality determines politics.” Which raises a question 2,500 years later for Nobel laureate James Buchanan and fellow economist Roger Congleton: Does politics determine morality?
Their answer in an era of no-holds-barred welfare state politics is, in the main, yes. They argue that the very logic of majoritarianism inevitably leads to unequal treatment and discrimination by the state. Coalitions push the interests of their members at the expense of others. Politics and “takings” become virtually synonymous.
Unprincipled politics? The charge is not new. Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” Oscar Wilde saw democracy as the “bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” Yet America seems to cling to politics over character. The high approval ratings of scandal-ridden President Clinton come to mind.
A kind of political amorality marks our times. Politics becomes a secondhand religion, an odd mixture of opportunism, apathy, cynicism, relativism, and deception. It sinks into a contest over spoils, plundering many to benefit a few, all via political spin and tax coercion.
Buchanan’s insights into this unholy process helped him win the 1986 Nobel Prize in economics, long after he and colleague Gordon Tullock forged the Public Choice school with their 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent. Their theory holds that self-interest guides voters and officials in their public as well as private choices, and that government naturally caters to powerful “rent-seeking” groups.
“Rent” in public choice jargon means a special grant: in a sense, a sale of a government favor enabling the beneficiary to prosper more than it otherwise could. Note, for example, that the domestic price of wholesale sugar is about twice the world price. It remains at that high level because the federal government protects some three-quarters of the market for high-cost domestic growers, with the remaining quarter allotted by quotas to low-cost foreign producers. The domestic growers’ gain comes at the expense of sugar consumers—virtually everyone getting clipped for but a few pennies a day.
Why does politics generate programs of such dubious morality? Public choice theorists explain that the rent-seekers are well informed about and fight hard for programs that give them large gains. The costs, on the other hand, are widely diffused among a great number of consumers who know little or nothing about the government’s policy and have little incentive to oppose it. The political deck is stacked in favor of those who prefer to wheedle their profits out of government “rent” rather than honest trade.
Buchanan and Congleton point up the economic facts of life. No free lunch ever—the state can give only what it first takes. Most voters are too busy with life’s exigencies to cope with the daily maze of politics, or as the public choicers put it, voters are “rationally ignorant.” However, they will pursue their perceived self-interest, join pressure groups in an attempt to get their cut of the state’s booty, and generally vote for the candidate or party that promises them the most.
The cure? The authors prescribe relimiting the state: Get it back to equal treatment of all. Restore to constitutional vitality the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In short, Buchanan and Congleton want to stop the state constitutionally from treating different persons and groups differently.
That would knock rent-seeking for a loop. It would reform election campaigns by getting at the root of the problem—power. It would add up to freer trade, saner environmental controls, greater freedom for American entrepreneurs. It would also lead to faster economic growth, less discrimination, less state waste, and lower taxes.
But, Catch-22: Can guts for such basic change be found in today’s jaded electorate? How many Americans want to do in Santa Claus by setting up a real barrier to the free-spending, vote-buying state? The need to put the constitutional brakes on runaway government is clear. How do we get there from here? That question awaits an answer.
As Voltaire wrote some 250 years ago: “The art of government is to take from some to give to others.” It is this dark art that James Buchanan and Roger Congleton seek to undo.