Virginian James Buchanan, co-founder of “public-choice economics” – or what he prefers to call the Virginia school of political economy – celebrated his 90th birthday in October. It’s a landmark, and a life, well worth celebrating.
Born into a farm family in Tennessee, Professor Buchanan spent most of his illustrious career teaching economics in Virginia. First at the University of Virginia, then at Virginia Tech, and from 1983 until his retirement in 1999 at George Mason University, he worked to revolutionize our understanding of the way government works.
Dr. Buchanan describes his achievements more humbly, insisting that he only put James Madison’s understanding of politics into modern terms. Madison would certainly applaud Buchanan’s work, just as the Central Bank of Sweden did in 1986 when it awarded him the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Professor Buchanan’s central insight is indeed one that Madison and other founders shared namely, we delude ourselves whenever we forget that men and women in the political arena are simply men and women rather than angels possessing some type of unusual wisdom.
Madison helped to write a constitution designed to keep politicians’ powers in check. Informed by his understanding of economics, Dr. Buchanan wrote countless articles and books on why this “Madisonian” project is both so important, but also extremely difficult.
Evidence of the difficulty is close at hand. Just look at the powers Uncle Sam exercises today and compare them with the very limited powers Madison’s constitution gave to the national government. The plain fact is that much, perhaps most, of what Washington does today was never intended by Madison and his colleagues to be part of the national government’s agenda.
Nowhere, for example, does the Constitution authorize Washington to run a pension scheme (Social Security), to subsidize farmers, to bail out automakers, or to do many of the other things that Washington does today. Yet Washington does these things with little or no hesitation.
Professor Buchanan argues that politicians, being human, are naturally attracted to the power, prestige, and perks of their offices. They want to hold onto those offices for as long as possible. Doing so requires that politicians satisfy the best organized and most vocal interest groups. Unfortunately, it’s too rare that the specific political demands of successful interest groups correspond with the general welfare of society.
Sugar farmers are unified in their interest in having higher sugar prices. Their relatively small numbers and the huge benefit to them of higher sugar prices prompt each of them to contribute heavily toward efforts to lobby Congress for programs that artificially raise the price of sugar.
Sugar consumers, in contrast, are very large in number, making it difficult for them to successfully coalesce into an effective political lobby. Also, the benefit to any single sugar consumer of having a lower price of sugar never equals the benefit to any single sugar farmer of having a higher price for sugar. A consumer, who would save $20 a year if Congress stopped interfering in the sugar market, has only weak incentives to lobby against this meddling. However, a sugar farmer, who stands to make several hundred thousand dollars of additional income annually, has powerful incentives to press politicians to continue intervening.
Dr. Buchanan insists that we should always look upon “politics without romance,” that we ought never forget that all the fine campaign phrases and soaring promises issued by politicians too often disguise the selfish, sometimes sleazy, reality of political activity.
Today, this “Buchanan-esque” understanding of politics is especially important. With both houses of Congress and the White House controlled by the same party, even the natural competition between political parties and between the different branches of government is now lessened. And the crisis atmosphere protracted by a still-struggling economy causes Americans to put aside some of their skepticism of government.
The result is a government far more powerful than it has been in recent years. Persons who shrug their shoulders at this fact should reflect that a government’s power to do bad coincidentally rises with its power to do good.
What to do?
Professor Buchanan’s answer is that we need constitutional change. What’s needed isn’t necessarily a new constitution to replace Madison’s 1787 document, but some rule changes that would limit government to serving the general interest rather than special interests. For example, stripping Congress of the power to pass legislation aimed solely at benefiting identifiable, specific interest groups would be a good start. Congress would then be more obliged to focus on legislation that benefits Americans generally.
Whether constitutional change is feasible is another question, but no one has done more to make the case for such change than Jim Buchanan.
May he celebrate many more birthdays!
Donald J. Boudreaux is professor of economics at George Mason University, and senior fellow for economic policy and tax reform at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy.