Friday, June 30, 2017

Show Me The Economic Case For Democracy

Nancy MacLean is a liberal professor whose new book, Democracy In Chains, makes the case that James Buchanan's work is anti-democratic.  He's my second favorite economist so I really appreciate the fact that she has given him so much attention.  As far as I know, no other liberal has written a book that is primarily, or even significantly, about Buchanan.

MacLean is 100% correct that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic.  Unfortunately, from what I've read about her book, she doesn't attack, or even acknowledge, his economic arguments against democracy.  This is why I haven't purchased her book.  But then again, I do love the fact that she has helped to direct so much attention to him.  So I probably should purchase her book if for no other reason than to positively reinforce her decision to put a spotlight on Buchanan.  I want the spotlight to be as big and bright as possible!

Even though I'm confident that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong.  Recently Michael Munger published a response to MacLean's book... On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice.  He did not agree with MacLean that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic.  Here's the recent twitter exchange between Munger and myself...

Buchanan preferred democracy?  Let's get historical...


The people feeling, during the continuance of the war, the complete burden of it, would soon grow weary of it, and government, in order to humour them, would not be under the necessity of carrying it on longer than it was necessary to do so. The foresight of the heavy and unavoidable burdens of war would hinder the people from wantonly calling for it when there was no real or solid interest to fight for. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations


Again, it may be objected that the poor are never invested with the sole power of making the laws; but I reply, that wherever universal suffrage has been established the majority of the community unquestionably exercises the legislative authority; and if it be proved that the poor always constitute the majority, it may be added, with perfect truth, that in the countries in which they possess the elective franchise they possess the sole power of making laws. But it is certain that in all the nations of the world the greater number has always consisted of those persons who hold no property, or of those whose property is insufficient to exempt them from the necessity of working in order to procure an easy subsistence. Universal suffrage does therefore, in point of fact, invest the poor with the government of society. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


The last point for consideration is the supposed disposition of the people to interfere with the rights of property.  So essential does it appear to me, to the cause of good government, that the rights of property should be held sacred, that I would agree to deprive those of the elective franchise against whom it could justly be alleged that they consider it their interest to invade them. - David Ricardo, Observations on Parliamentary Reform


It is also important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people's money, have every motive to be lavish, and none to economize. As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government; a severance of the power of control, from the interest in its beneficial exercise. It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people's pockets, for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one; which in some of the great towns of the United States is known to have produced a scale of local taxation onerous beyond example, and wholly borne by the wealthier classes. That representation should be coextensive with taxation, not stopping short of it, but also not going beyond it, is in accordance with the theory of British institutions. But to reconcile this, as a condition annexed to the representation, with universality, it is essential, as it is on many other accounts desirable, that taxation, in a visible shape, should descend to the poorest class. In this country, and in most others, there is probably no labouring family which does not contribute to the indirect taxes, by the purchase of tea, coffee, sugar, not to mention narcotics or stimulants. But this mode of defraying a share of the public expenses is hardly felt: the payer, unless a person of education and reflection, does not identify his interest with a low scale of public expenditure, as closely as when money for its support is demanded directly from himself; and even supposing him to do so, he would doubtless take care that, however lavish an expenditure he might, by his vote, assist in imposing upon the government, it should not be defrayed by any additional taxes on the articles which he himself consumes. It would be better that a direct tax, in the simple form of a capitation, should be levied on every grown person in the community; or that every such person should be admitted an elector, on allowing himself to be rated extra ordinem to the assessed taxes; or that a small annual payment, rising and falling with the gross expenditure of the country, should be required from every registered elector; that so every one might feel that the money which he assisted in voting was partly his own, and that he was interested in keeping down its amount.  
However this may be, I regard it as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise. He who cannot by his labour suffice for his own support, has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others. By becoming dependent on the remaining members of the community for actual subsistence, he abdicates his claim to equal rights with them in other respects. Those to whom he is indebted for the continuance of his very existence, may justly claim the exclusive management of those common concerns, to which he now brings nothing, or less than he takes away. As a condition of the franchise, a term should be fixed, say five years previous to the registry, during which the applicant's name has not been on the parish books as a recipient of relief. To be an uncertificated bankrupt, or to have taken the benefit of the Insolvent Act, should disqualify for the franchise until the person has paid his debts, or at least proved that he is not now, and has not for some long period been, dependent on eleemosynary support. Non-payment of taxes, when so long persisted in that it cannot have arisen from inadvertence, should disqualify while it lasts. - J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government


If once the lower classes are definitely in possession of the power to legislate and tax, there will certainly be a danger that they may behave no more unselfishly than those classes which have so far been in power. In other words, there will be danger that the lower classes in power may impose the bulk of all taxes on the rich and may at the same time be so reckless and extravagant in approving public expenditures to which they themselves contribute but little that the nation’s mobile capital may soon be squandered fruitlessly. This may well break the lever of progress. — Knut Wicksell, A New Principle of Just Taxation

1933 (regarding)...

As was noted in Chapter 3, expressions of malice and/or envy no less than expressions of altruism are cheaper in the voting booth than in the market. A German voter who in 1933 cast a ballot for Hitler was able to indulge his antisemitic sentiments at much less cost than she would have borne by organizing a pogrom. — Loren Lomasky, Geoffrey Brennan Democracy and Decision

These thoughts, by such well-respected thinkers, are anti-democratic.  But perhaps it doesn't necessarily mean that their work was anti-democratic?

In 1954 the Nobel economist Paul Samuelson wrote a paper that correctly recognized that private goods and public goods are different. People can benefit from national defense, for example, even if they don't help pay for it. If the amount of money that people spend on national defense does not accurately reflect their true valuation of it, then the wrong amount will be supplied. So the problem is not that people wrongly value national defense. The problem is false signals. Samuelson correctly argued that taxation is necessary and that the government should supply public goods. However, he simply assumed that government planners would be able to correctly guess the true signals.

Samuelson's assumption did not sit well with Buchanan. In 1963 he wrote a paper that argued that, since people are paying taxes anyways, if they are given the opportunity to earmark their tax dollars to specific public goods, they'd have no incentive to give false signals. If your valuation of national defense is $1000 of your tax dollars, but you only earmark $100 tax dollars to national defense, it doesn't mean that you'll be able to spend the difference on private goods (ie clothes, food). It means that you'll have $900 tax dollars to earmark to other public goods (ie education, healthcare)... which you value less than national defense. Therefore, there's absolutely no incentive to give false signals.

From my perspective, Buchanan's paper is blatantly and obviously anti-democratic.  Why is it anti-democratic?  Because it's pro-market.  When markets expand, the alternatives contract.

Right now Netflix is in a market, but it is not a market.  Subscribers can vote for specific content, but they aren't given the opportunity to decide how to divide their limited subscription dollars among the unlimited content.  If Netflix did become a market, then people's spending decisions would logically subvert their voting decisions.  It wouldn't matter how many "thumbs up" a show received, all that would matter is how many subscription dollars it had received.  So it's logically absurd to prefer markets and democracy.

However, I acknowledge that Buchanan's one paper might not be truly representative of his work.  Let's zoom out...


Historically, legislative bodies, through which the preferences of individual citizens are most directly represented, have exercised more control over revenue or tax decisions than they have over expenditure decisions. In part this asymmetry has its origin in the development of democratic political institutions out of monarchial institutions. Representative bodies, parliaments, first achieved the power to restrict the tax-gathering privileges of the kings. Before taxes could be levied on the people, representative bodies were given the right to grant their approval. No consideration was given to the spending side of the account because public expenses were assumed to benefit primarily the royal court, at least in the early days of constitutional monarchy. Taxes were viewed as necessary charges on the people, but they were not really conceived as any part of an "exchange" process from which the people secured public benefits. It was out of this conception of the fiscal process that both the modern institutions and the modern theory of public finance developed. - James Buchanan The Bridge Between Tax and Expenditure in the Fiscal Decision Process

The emerging of modern democratic states dramatically modified the setting for the fiscal process, but only recently has attention been paid to the necessity of revising age-old norms. As royal courts came to be replaced by executives, and monarchies by republics, taxes continued to be viewed as necessary to sustain the expenses of “government,” with the burden of these taxes to be minimized to the maximum extent possible. Surprisingly little recognition has been given, even yet, to the idea that taxes must, in the final analysis, be considered as the “costs” of those public goods and services which provide benefits to the same people who pay taxes. - James Buchanan, The Bridge Between Tax and Expenditure in the Fiscal Decision Process

A second analytical principle emerged more than a century after Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and it was not explicitly incorporated into the norms for policy. But it may have been implicitly recognized. It is important because it reinforces the classical principles from a different and essentially political or public-choice perspective. In 1896, Knut Wicksell noted that an individual could make an informed, rational assessment of various proposals for public expenditure only if he were confronted with a tax bill at the same time. Moreover, to facilitate such comparison, Wicksell suggested that the total costs of any proposed expenditure program should be apportioned among the individual members of the political community. These were among the institutional features that he thought necessary to make reasonably efficient fiscal decisions in a democracy. Effective democratic government requires institutional arrangements that force citizens to take account of the costs of government as well as the benefits, and to do so simultaneously. The Wicksellian emphasis was on making political decisions more efficient, on ensuring that costs be properly weighed against benefits. A norm of balancing the fiscal decision or choice process, if not a formal balancing of the budget, emerges directly from the Wicksellian analysis. - James Buchanan, Richard Wagner Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes

The necessity of relating decisions on public expenditures explicitly to decisions on taxes through the political process, and of assigning a definite revenue category to each single expenditure was stressed by Wicksell in his classic statement of the individualistic theory of public finance (see Knut Wicksell, "A New Principle of Just Taxation," in Classics in the Theory of Public Finance, ed. 1R. A. Musgrave and A. T. Peacock [London: International Economic Association, 1958], pp. 72-118, but esp. p. 94. The original Wicksell work is Finanztileorietisclie Uizlersuchlungen [Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1896]). - James Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes

The most sophisticated contribution was made by Knut Wicksell in 1896.  He explicitly identified the fundamental methodological error in the then-orthodox approach, and he combined positive criticism with normative suggestions for reforms.  Wicksell recognized the necessity of bridging the two sides of the fiscal account, and he noted the indeterminacy of any proposed principles that were limited to tax-side considerations. - James Buchanan, Public Finance and Public Choice

In addition to the uncertainty factor, which can be readily understood to limit the range of rational calculus, the single individual loses the sense of decision-making responsibility that is inherent in private choice. Secure in the knowledge that, regardless of his own action, social or collective decisions affecting him will be made, the individual is offered a greater opportunity either to abstain altogether from making a positive choice or to choose without having considered the alternatives carefully. In a real sense, private action forces the individual to exercise his freedom by making choices compulsory. These choices will not be made for him. The consumer who refrains from entering the market place will starve unless he hires a professional shopper. Moreover, once having been forced to make choices, he is likely to be somewhat more rational in evaluating the alternatives before him. - Gordon Tullock, James Buchanan, Individuality Rationality in Social Choice

The introduction of the debt alternative to taxation makes the bridge between cost and benefit more difficult for the individual to construct. - James Buchanan, "Fiscal Policy" and Fiscal Choice

Institutionally, earmarking provides a means of compartmentalizing fiscal decisions.  The individual citizen, as voter-taxpayer-beneficiary, is enabled to participate, separately, either directly or through his legislative representative, in the several public expenditure decisions that may arise. He may, through this device, "vote" independently on the funds to be devoted to schools, to sanitation, and so on, given the specified revenue sources. Only in this manner can he make "private" choices on the basis of some reasonably accurate comparison of the costs and the benefits of the specific public services, one at the time.  By contrast, general-fund budgeting, or non-earmarking, allows the citizen to "vote" only on the aggregate outlay for the predetermined "bundles" of public services, as this choice is presented to him by the budgetary authorities. - James Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes

Conceptually, an "ideal" institutional arrangement might be that of allowing individuals to "pay for" governmental goods and services in a manner analogous to that which they have found most convenient for financing consumer durables. The quarterly payments of tax on declarations of income above or outside withholding probably tend, on balance, to promote "logical" response to the income tax structure. It is the absence of any conscious sense of transfer, the absence of any monthly or quarterly bill, that represents the questionable feature of withholding, and one that may tend to create a Puviani-type illusion.  - James Buchanan, Public Finance in Democratic Process: Fiscal Institutions and Individual Choice

Only one of these questions seems relatively easy to answer. If the individual can make separate fiscal choices for each public-goods program, which a structure of earmarked taxes conceptually allows him to do, directly or indirectly, he is informed as to the alternatives that he confronts, at least to the extent that the payment institutions allow, and subject, of course, to all of the qualifications noted in previous analysis. The uncertainty that he faces is clearly less than that which is present in the comparable decision on a “bundle” of public goods or services, with the mix among the separate components in the bundle to be determined in a separate decision process or through the auspices of a delegated budget-making authority. If this mix is not announced in advance to the voter-taxpayer, he must try to predict the outcome of another decision process, in which he may or may not participate, a process that need not exist at all in the more straightforward earmarking model where all revenue sources are specifically dedicated. - James Buchanan, Public Finance in Democratic Process: Fiscal Institutions and Individual Choice

In a balanced-budget context, a decision to spend publicly implies a decision to tax, and a decision to tax implies a decision to spend. Only if the actual institutions of fiscal choice are organized in such a way that this basic truism is reflected in the alternatives confronting the individual participant can these uncertainties be minimized. Much of the modern criticism of the United States Congress is directed at its failure to allow simultaneous consideration of expenditure and tax decisions. - James Buchanan, The Bridge Between Tax and Expenditure in the Fiscal Decision Process

Nevertheless, the fact remains that such choice embodies a direct correspondence between private cost and private benefit, the characteristic that is stressed here, and the one that is absent, in varying degree, from individual choice in collective decision processes.  This central feature of market choice, rather than any implied assumption of rationality, makes individual behavior in organized markets useful as a benchmark from which we begin to assess collective choice institutions. - James Buchanan, Public Finance in Democratic Process

Similar behavior can be predicted on the spending side of the account. If the individual citizen were asked, in mid-1963, his opinions on proposed expansions in the federal space program, he could, roughly and in some fashion, measure benefits in terms of sport, national prestige, adventure, technological fallout, etc. But what were the costs? He would not have translated the costs of the space program into increased taxes. And for a very simple reason: the individual knew that he would not have to pay such taxes. The predictable result of a democratic choice process is the generation of budget deficits when borrowing is available as an alternative to taxation unless deficit creation is not somehow restrained by constitutional limitations. - James Buchanan, Public Finance in Democratic Process: Fiscal Institutions and Individual Choice

The Clay committee has at last discovered the fiscal version of Aladdin's wonderful lamp, and that henceforth all governmental “good things” such as super-super highways may come to us without our having to bear either the burden of taxation of the sufferings of conscience over increasing national debt. - James Buchanan, Painless Pavements: Highways by High Finance

Good things come at a cost, whether they be provided by the government or the grocery store. - James Buchanan, Painless Pavements: Highways by High Finance

The apparent splitting of the fiscal process into two parts was shown to produce potential gaps between preferred spending on public goods and services and preferred levels of taxation. Until and unless these gaps are eliminated, budget deficits tend to emerge from democratic decision processes. - James Buchanan, "Fiscal Policy" and Fiscal Choice

Under the assumption that public output enters positively into the utility functions of citizens, the expenditure by itself will secure support for the politician. The taxes, however, will reduce the disposable income of citizens, thereby affecting them negatively and reducing support for the politician. In a plurality electoral system, for given preferences and fixed tax institutions, the budget will be expanded so long as a majority would prefer the public service to the private goods they would have to sacrifice via taxation. - James Buchanan, Richard Wagner Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes

The restoration of the balanced-budget rule will serve only to allow for a somewhat more conscious and careful weighting of benefits and costs. The rule will have the effect of bringing the real costs of public outlays to the awareness of decision makers; it will tend to dispel the illusory “something for nothing” aspects of fiscal choice. - James Buchanan, Richard Wagner Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes

Randall Bartlett makes the same point, only he uses a visual rather than an auditory metaphor. In his framework, some tax forms have higher visibility than others. Starting with perfect visibility, taxes can be arrayed in descending order of visibility. In both his analysis and ours, changes in the institutional format for extracting revenues will influence citizen perceptions of the cost of government. See Randall Bartlett, Economic Foundations of Political Power (New York: Free Press, 1973), pp. 92-95. - James Buchanan, Richard Wagner, Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes


Am I cherry picking?  Maybe.  But it's a fact that democracy and markets can't be equally effective at creating a bridge between choice and cost.  Take prohibition for example.  The majority voted for it.  Evidently lots of people wanted it... so they got it.  However, the amount of money spent on prohibition was not determined by voters, it was determined by government planners.

A = society's valuation of prohibition
B = the amount of money spent on prohibition
C = the difference between A and B

If Munger wants to argue that C is insignificant, then he should see markets as a massive waste of time and energy.  It's pointless for everybody to decide how much money to spend on milk when government planners already know the answer.

If Munger wants to argue that C is significant, but B is more socially beneficial than A, then not only should he see markets as a massive waste of time and energy, he should see that they provide the wrong answer.  It's incredibly undesirable for everybody to decide how much money to spend on milk when their answer is less correct than the answer already known by planners.

MacLean perceives that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic.  Munger has an infinitely better grasp of Buchanan's work than MacLean does.  Yet, for some reason, Munger doesn't perceive that Buchanan's work is anti-democratic.

From my perspective, Buchanan's work is anti-democratic because it's pro-truth.  Buchanan and Samuelson both agreed that false signals are a problem.  However, Samuelson was perfectly fine simply assuming that planners would have no problem correctly guessing the true signals.  Buchanan rejected Samuelson's assumption.  Buchanan correctly understood and endeavored to explain that true signals are a function of individual choices being directly informed/influenced by personal (opportunity) costs.

In his response/review, Munger wrote...

For Buchanan, “politics” is a means for groups to overcome the transactions costs of negotiating and enforcing agreements in groups too large to foster Coasian (Coase, 1960) bargaining arrangements.

It helps to break prohibition down into two questions...

1. Should alcohol be illegal?
2. How much money should be spent on prohibition?

The second question is only asked if the first question is answered affirmatively.  Coasianism is relevant to the first question, but it's really not relevant to the second one.  The second question can only be correctly answered by a market in the public sector.  Just like this question, "how much money should be spent on sci-fi shows?" can only be correctly answered by a market in Netflix.

So what does Munger mean that coasianism doesn't work for large groups?  Imagine that Munger and I are the only two people answering the first question.  He answers "yes" but I answer "no".  Voting wouldn't work... but arm-wrestling would.  So would coasianism.  We'd both get our phones out and open the coasian app.  He'd enter how much he'd be willing to pay for his preferred outcome and I'd enter how much that I'd be willing to pay for my preferred outcome.  After we had both entered our amounts, the app would show us each other's amounts.  If his amount was $100 dollars while my amount was only $25... then he would win.  Alcohol would be illegal for a year.  Since I didn't get my way, I wouldn't have to pay $25 dollars.  Instead, I would receive the $100 dollars that he was willing to pay.  Clearly the decision was made by facilitating a mutually beneficial trade.  The decision was made by a market.  It was made by a different type of market.  It was made by a coasian market.  It was made by coasianism.

Coasianism doesn't have an upper limit on the number of participants.  It works just as well for 2 billion people.  There might be technical issues to overcome but they don't diminish the desirability of coasianism.

With coasianism, people's choices are obviously informed/influenced by their consideration/comparison of the (opportunity) costs.  So Buchanan's work is relevant to coasianism.  But Buchanan didn't really focus on coasian markets.  His focus was on buchanian markets.

Coasianism should be used to decide whether alcohol should be illegal.  If coasianism determines that alcohol should be illegal, then there's the question of how much money to spend on prohibition.  This question should be answered by buchanianism.  Each and every taxpayer would consider/compare the (opportunity) costs of prohibition, and earmark their own tax dollars accordingly.

Each of the two questions is answered by each and every person having the chance to consider/compare/calculate the (opportunity) costs.

Making decisions without knowing/comparing/feeling the (opportunity) costs is really stupid.  Therefore, democracy is really stupid.  Buchanan was not stupid.  Munger isn't stupid either.  Neither is MacLean.  Munger and MacLean can both understand why democracy is so stupid.  But it should be easier and faster for him to do so given that he has a lot more economics under his belt.

Of course it's entirely possible that I'm wrong about everything.  Munger can certainly make the case that I'm wrong about Buchanan.  I'd be interested to see his case.  But I'd be far more interested to see his case for democracy.  When, exactly, is it beneficial for people to be clueless about costs?  When, exactly, is it desirable for people to have no idea what they will have to sacrifice for the things they want?


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