Steinbaum on Public Choice

August 16, 2017

Marshall Steinbaum has published a sort of review of NancyMacLean’s Democracy in Chains in which describes “the racist origins of Public Choice theory” and suggests that everyone should read Democracy in Chains “despite its rhetorical shortcomings.”
Steinbaum seems unquestioningly accept MacLean’s claim that Buchanan’s “study of how government officials make decisions became “public choice economics.”” (MacLean xxiii) In making public choice theory and Buchanan’s though synonymous, Steinbaum and MacLean strip public choice of all context other than that related to Buchanan. Buchanan, however, was only one of a number of people attempting to apply economic methods (rational choice and models) to the analysis of both politics and political philosophy. Duncan Black’s work was published before Buchanan, and Ken Arrow, William Riker, Vincent Ostrom, Amartya Sen and others were working on this approach in the 1950s and 1960s at the same time as Buchanan. To the best of my knowledge, none of them appear in Democracy in Chains. They are not listed in the index. The point is that there were a lot of people interested in applying the economic approach to politics. Many of them did not have the same normative preferences as Buchanan. It is this broader approach to public choice that you will find in Mueller’s text on the subject. It is even what you will find here at the Library of Economics and Liberty. Public choice is more than James Buchanan.
By the way, this is more of a defense of public choice theory than it is of Buchanan,Virginia, or UVA. The University of Virginia was an avowedly racist and sexist place in the ’50s and ’60s? UVA was both all white and all male (until the 1970s). To the best of my knowledge neither Buchanan or anyone of his colleagues at the time made any effort to change that. Of course that could be said of most of the men at UVA and a lot of other universities at the time. The liberty they were most concerned with seemed to be the liberty of men like themselves. 

I’ll also say that I have no intention of reading the whole book. If you want to say I have no right to criticize it until I have read the whole thing, go ahead. I don’t care. I don’t have enough time to waste on historians that I do not trust. This is particularly true for a subject that I do not regard as my area of expertise. If it is nineteenth or early twentieth century American economic history I can quickly identify inconsistencies and errors, but for other topics I need to have some faith in the historian. For me the bottom line on MacLean’s book is still that there are numerous instances where she did not honestly represent her sources. Misrepresenting your sources is more than a rhetorical shortcoming.

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