Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kevin Currie-Knight on Yglesias, Buchanan, and Institution Building

A facebook friend, Kevin Currie-Knight, gives me permission to repost something we were talking about yesterday. He begins by quoting Yglesias in this new post about Buchanan, and then gives a response:
"‎"People were aware of the problem of political corruption and malfeasance before Buchanan came along. What's always been tricky is the question of how to build effective public institutions?"  
Yes, this author [Yglesias] needs some pretty serious help. Had he read much Buchanan (say, "The Reason of Rules" or even "Calculus of Consent") I think he'd be blatantly aware that Buchanan was concerned PRECISELY with this question."
The first sentence by Yglesias - that people were aware of all the public choice stuff Buchanan talked about (although I'm not sure I'd characterize all these problems as "corruption") long before he came along. Indeed - Buchanan accused people of ignoring it that actually didn't!

But Kevin's reaction to the second sentence is spot on, too. I get two things out of this: first, if this is meant to be a complaint from Yglesias - a justification of his earlier tweet - he has no idea how science works. All scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. Nobody has an entirely novel idea, and any novel ideas you do have are usually just ideas for picking up and pushing forward a project that lots of other people have worked on in the past.

The second thing is that Yglesias is apparently missing the point I made yesterday in the post citing Garrett Jones that you really can't derive useful conclusions from public choice theory without the constitutional economics. If you just run around with public choice theory without a broader sense of the reasons why humans make governments you're going to be pointing at government failures right and left and assuming government is worthless. It's the same as if you read about market failures without a broader sense of what markets have to offer (particularly relative to the alternatives).

Aside from my own interest in constitutions and the American tradition of liberalism, this is why I think the constitutional economics element is so important and why so far the post I did on constitutions has been (in my mind at least) my major "Buchanan memorial" post.

If you are going to use the insight that governments fail, you need to then have a convincing answer for yourself about why people use governments nevertheless.

If you are going to use the insight that markets fail, you need to then have a convincing answer for yourself about why people use markets.

I feel like I have a half-way decent answer to both (and Buchanan has been one contributor to me on figuring that out).

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