Saturday, October 12, 2013

The weakness of the "bootleggers and Baptists" line

Like a lot of you, I love the whole "bootleggers and Baptists" observation of Bruce Yandle. I used it recently, in fact, in my Cato piece on immigration not just because I love it but because I knew the audience there loves it too.

That's why it pains me to discuss what I've felt for a long time about it and what I think anyone honest with themselves should also feel about it: it's awfully weak as an analytical tool, but it's great as a rhetorical tool.

The thing is, almost any policy you could think of invoking it for is a contested policy. Public policy is naturally contested space, and the sorts of policies we talk about are especially contested. That means that there are bootleggers and there are Baptists on both side of any issue in all likelihood. What got me writing this was a recent post by Don Boudreaux using bootleggers and Baptists to talk about the minimum wage. There is another application here, though.

As far as I can tell Don Boudreaux doesn't mean any ill-will to low income working families. I don't think Walter Williams means any ill-will to low income blacks either. He does flood my email after I repeatedly tell him that I never signed up to get his email and that I would like to be unsubscribed, but this is a minor frustration - I don't think he is a man overflowing with ill-will.

Boudreaux and Williams are the Baptists. They are sincerely seeking out what they see as the good.

But there are other elements pushing their view on the minimum wage as well, principally employer interests that would like to keep labor costs as low as possible. These are the bootleggers. They have a pecuniary interest in policy that weakens labor and they'll team up with Baptists who have no interest whatsoever in hurting low income working families but are aligned on policy questions because they are under the impression that they are pursuing the good.

This isn't some leftist fantasy either. Adam Smith made precisely this point in his discussion of wages. He was firmly of the opinion that well-meaning people had a tendency to side against the interests of labor not out of any ill-will but out of a somewhat confused sense of what constituted the public good (when labor fought for its interests it was usually far more visible and perceived to be far more threatening), and that employers of course were more than happy to go along with this.

It's obvious to most people today, and not just restricted to the far left today either. It's clear to most people unless you're the sort of "Baptist" whose view of the good coincides with interest of employers.

See - it doesn't really get us anywhere analytically.

Now if Don sees this he's going to come up with all sorts of reasons why the case I outline here is different. Of course he is. All Baptists do. Do you think minimum wage advocates see Don's post any differently?

This difference of opinion is often - in the circles Don runs in - interpreted as a lack of appreciation for public choice principles. In reality I don't think it's anything of the sort, and indeed leveling that sort of complaint exhibits an immature appreciation of the sort of public choice problems that crop up. What's usually going on, I think, is a difference of opinion on the most sensible application of public choice principles. An area that I think is particularly rife with this problem is explaining fiscal austerity. The root of the austerity problem is a public choice problem: political interests in austerity that conflict with the interests of society. Unfortunately there is no research on this that I am aware of among public choice scholars because of the narrow application of those ideas. Other economists interested in "political economy" have taken up this work, but they generally aren't associated with the public choice school. If you raise these concerns with them you get told you're missing something about public choice. One thing you don't usually get (I'd love to learn of exceptions) is reflection that maybe there's something stale about that research agenda and that looking into austerity is long overdue.

I've gone a little far afield here, but the fundamental point I think is the same: there is a strain of libertarian economics that runs on metaphors: Baptists and bootleggers, for example. The communication value of these metaphors is often very high, but the analytic content is much lower, I think, and it's usually because of a surprisingly narrow view of how the principles at hand are best applied, and a surprising lack of appreciation that others would apply it differently.

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