Thursday 3 September 2009

Buchanan on Meddlesome Preferences

From "Politics and Meddlesome Preferences", in volume 13 of the Collected Works of James Buchanan:
Consider the following politically orchestrated regulations:
  1. Prohibition on private leaf burning.
  2. Prohibition of the possession of handguns.
  3. Prohibition of the sale or use of alcoholic beverages.
  4. Prohibition of smoking in public places or places of business.
  5. Prohibition on driving or riding in an automobile without fastening seat belts.
  6. Prohibition on driving or riding on a motorcycle without wearing crash helmets.
...It seems quite possible that at least in some political jurisdictions a majority of voters might be found to support each and every one of the six activities listed. As noted earlier, however, the critical weakness in ordinary majoritarian procedures is that the intensities of preference are not taken into account. [So long as each supporter of each regulation values the regulation weakly but feels strongly the pains on the one dimension he opposes, then] The political process may well work so as to make each and every person in the relevant community worse off with enactment and enforcement of all of the prohibitions listed than he or she would be if none of the prohibitions were enacted.
My worry is there's a well-funded and vocal minority preferring prohibition across all margins in addition to folks' weak preferences.
...These prohibitions and regulations, existing or proposed, may be based on "scientific grounds." These critics might allege that leaf burning releases dangerous elements in the atmosphere; that handguns kill people; that alcohol is addictive and a causal factor in disease; that smoking is dangerous to health; and that seat belts and crash helmets save lives.

These arguments are highly deceiving in that they attempt to introduce, under the varying guises of "science," an objective value standard, one that "should" be imposed on all persons. Strictly interpreted, of course, almost any activity each of us undertakes is, in some way or another, a possible risk to our health. Once this is recognized, the question is one of drawing lines, and there is no well-defined set of activities that fall into one category or other.

Towards a Sumptuary Constutitution

We have been caught up in a wave of politicization for several decades. As a result, the set of activities that have been subjected to governmental-bureaucratic prohibition, regulation, and control has been expanded dramatically. Once politics was discovered as the apparent low-cost means of imposing preferences on behavior, a Pandora's box was opened that shows no signs of closing itself.

In these as in other aspects of the relationship between the citizens and the government, the dangers of excessive politicization cannot be avoided merely by a change in the makeup of political parties or by a change of politicians. In democracy, politicians respond to the electorates, and electoral majorities may, in a piecemeal fashion, close off one liberty after another. Prediction of such a prospect suggests that genuine reform can come only by constitutional rules that will prevent ordinary democratic majorities, in the electorates or in legislative assemblies, from entering too readily into the sumptuary areas of activities. Until and unless we recognize that politics, too, must operate within constitutional limits, each of our liberties, whether valued highly or slightly, is up for grabs.
Smart guy, Buchanan. Nobel in Economics 1986. Follow-up questions for my Econ 336 and 653 students:
  • Why would logrolling not ensure the satisfaction of mean rather than median voter preferences across all issues?
  • To what extent does the existence of fiscal externalities through the public health system affect the problem?
  • While majoritarian democracy may have this problem, under what conditions might we expect a free-market anarchy of the type discussed by Caplan and Stringham to exhibit similar problems with meddlesome preferences?

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