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You're making things too complicated.

I don't have that quote of Bastiat's right before me, but he said it all when he said that the state is the means by which some people live off the hard work of others, or something to that effect.

It's all about plunder, and the only real question, then: does it pay?

And that's a question not for Public Choice Theory, nor any other "new frontiers of inquiry," but for old fashioned "economic reasoning."

Passages Worth Thinking About

They come from Vincent Ostrom's The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville's Challenge (University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 3-4; 114-115).

"... it is all too apparent that financial obligations associated with social entitlements intended to solve welfare problems and advance public welfare threaten the viability of basic monetary and financial institutions. In my judgment, American democracy is at risk. Why has a flood of crises inundated the United States of America and other democracies in the contemporary world?"


In the U.S. could at least some of the crises have anything to do with central banking, a product of that quintessential democratic institution known as Congress? Of course, there are other institutional statist crises brewing, such as Medicare/Medicaid and antiSocial inSecurity.
The problem with the Ostroms is that they love democracy, which after all feeds them with taxpayer-financed salaries and NFS grants.
I wonder what Rothbard thought of Ostrom's work?

The reactions above are what happens when people are more concerned with thinking they have ideological trump cards in their pockets than with actually understanding the world with the goal of changing it. All the shoe-bangers here who think the Ostroms' work is irrelevant because they aren't libertarian (enough) just continue demonstrate in their own way why standing up and yelling "free markets!" and "the state is evil!" and "Mises was right!" leads libertarianism to ACTUAL irrelevance.

Didn't someone once say that before you change the world, you have to understand it? Screaming the Liturgy of the Sacred Thinkers, or judging ideas by what those Thinkers would have thought of them, is the sure path to irrelevance. The Ostroms don't have to be right about everything to give us ideas and insights that we can use to better understand and change the world.

After all, Mises and Hayek believed in larger role for the state than most radical libertarians today, but their ideas can be understood to make the case for a much smaller to non-existent state. Why isn't the same argument possible for the Ostroms?

(And for Bill Stepp: perhaps you shouldn't be commenting on this blog given that several of the faculty here have taxpayer-financed salaries. Does that automatically disqualify them from contributing to libertarianism? Why doesn't that make their ideas suspect if it does for the Ostroms? What's good for the Ostrom goose is good for the Boettke gander by your logic, no? If not, then why is it even relevant?)

Unfortunately, Steve, I think the discourse so far on this demonstrates once again the problems with blog comments (just as we saw in money and banking and more recently with respect to mathematical economics). However, I must say that at least in this instance it is not anonymous trolls, both Mr. Lesvic and Mr. Steep are willing to sign their names and stand by their positions. Mr. Steep, this is actually what Vincent is talking about if you read him closely about what it means to live democratically. As he says it is far less about "voting" and more about responsibility, accountability, etc. in our behavior with one another.

And Steve is right, I have taken tax funds to support my teaching and research activities --- not only my salary from the state of VA, but research funds from the federal government (to support a project on Cyber-security which was published in a law review and included essays by David Friedman and Bruce Benson on coordinating cyber anarchy and self-governance; and USAID money to support field work and research on why government bureaucracy blocks market reforms in underdeveloped countries). So I am as guilty or innocent as any other state university professor and researcher in economics and political economy. Personally, I think these points are irrelevant --- scholars should be judged on the quality of their work and the substantive contribution. But perhaps I just say that so I can sleep at night and thus it is an act of self-delusion and self-deception.

As for Mr. Lesvic -- I agree that the state is organized/legalized plunder. I am a fan of Bastiat too. I also agree that redistribution is one of the most, perhaps the most, critical question we face. Obamonomics is about redistribution.

What I am disappointed in, is that both of you are not taking up the challenge of reading Vincent's points about the threat to democratic way of life (read a society of free and responsible individuals) and how public choice scholarship must be transformed to meet that challenge.

Imagine you are in a giant classroom, and the professor has just asked you to read some passages and to contemplate them and their meaning for understanding the human condition, the rules that bind us in our behavior with respect to one another and in our relationship to nature. How is it that freedom is a possibility? How is it that human dignity is achieved?

Sarte said in No Exit that "Hell is other people." Is that are fate?

Vincent often quotes Hamilton (don't focus on the person, but think about the question from Federalist #1) where he states that is comes to the people of the US to answer the question of "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

Can we as praxeologists think through that problem analytically? Can we as praxeologically informed social theorists pursue historical scholarship that addresses this question?

To me these are questions that are far more important than whether or not someone explicitly claims to be a libertarian or not as their ideology.


As usual, you people are just begging and evading the questions, and it is apparent again that economics at its frontiers is an amateur science.

I think the taxpayers of Indiana and Virginia can sort out what their taxes should (or should not) pay for. As a non-resident of both states, I don't have a dog in their fights. For the record, I think IU and GMU should be private(ized).
I don't know what it means to live democratically, give that democracy is simply a way of "choosing" a government, as Rothbard pointed out in P&M. And what is government but a criminal gang, as he also pointed out?

Respondsibility and accountability might have something to do with democracy (although I doubt they has much to do with it), but fundamentally they are (private) virtues instilled in children by their parents, relatives, friends, and other people they interact with.
Anyway, how can accountability be accounted for in an institution such as the State, with its fundamental principle-agent problem, use of Other Peoples' Money, and subsidizing of favored "clients," i.e. net tax consumers, as Rothbard called them?

"democratic societies are necessarily placed at risk when people conceive of their relationships as being grounded on principles of command and control rather than on principles of self-responsibility in self-governing communities of relationships."

I found this quotation to be the most interesting, and especially relevant to what's going on in today's world. I think some of the comments above are unfortunate partly because they miss the fact that these questions would, presumably, be relevant even if one assumes the state away.

This book (V. Ostrom on democracy vs. democracies) has been one of the most fruitful I read in graduate school. Purely in terms of its relevance, it is staggering, startling, and sometimes frightening. If there were two books that have been the most up-rooting of my vulgar libertarian tendencies (see Horwitz and Boettke comments above) it was this and Wagner's _Fiscal Sociology_ book. It's difficult to read either carefully--which means every page and stopping from time to time to think about the text, as well--without being shaken by the clarity of the underlying logic and what it means for the arrangement of our intellectual furniture.

I've recently picked up V-O's _The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration_ published back in 1973. It's impressive to see someone who's been struggling with these questions for such a long time and, despite the difficulty of making contributions, continues to push the limits of our understanding.

As an interesting but unrelated point, in the first chapter he says, "An intellectual construct is like a pair of spectacles. We see and order events in the world by looking through our spectacles and constructs. We are apt to neglect a critical examination of the spectacles or constructs themselves." pp 21. Now, I've heard since undergrad that theory is a pair of glasses. I used to think this was Carilli wisdom, then I found out it may be Boettke wisdom, but no, it's more likely Lavoie wisdom. Is it truly an Ostromian urtext? Insight from the senior Lavoie-ites would be appreciated.

But don't spend your whole career polishing your glasses.

Democracy has become a weasel word. What counts is not the vote (which just means rule of the leader of the biggest tribe) but limited government under the rule of law and a suite of other institutions and practices which evolved precariously in recent centuries, including a moral framework with principles like honesty, compassion, civility etc (the bourgeoise virtues).

"How people conduct themselves as they directly relate to one another in the ordinary exigencies of life is much more fundamental to a democratic way of life than the principle of 'one person, one vote, majority rule.'"

A conservative blogger who gets to mark essays in high school has discovered that the principle that the majority is right has become standard. Hence 'we won so shut up'. As this view becomes established then the kind democracy that we want is indeed at risk.

Left liberals should be invited to stop agitating for bigger public programs to help the disadvantaged and instead to go out and find some disadvantaged people or a disadvantaged school or whatever and offer to personally help them. That could make a difference. They would also learn about the causes of disadvantage.

Steve Horwitz writes:

All the shoe-bangers here who think the Ostroms' work is irrelevant because they aren't libertarian (enough) just continue demonstrate in their own way why standing up and yelling "free markets!" and "the state is evil!" and "Mises was right!" leads libertarianism to ACTUAL irrelevance.
As far as I can tell, no one on this blog has said their work is irrelevant. But I have yet to see one word of criticism about their work, which I would like to see. In other words, some balance.

Speaking of accountability, the Oct. 17 issue of The Economist has an interesting article on "Satellites in the Alphabet Soup," p. 94.
Three government agencies, including NASA, are trying to launch a new generation of Earth observation satellites to replace the current generation. In the mid-90s the cost was projected at $6.5b. Now it looks more like $15b, and their expected late launch might cause a gap in the collection of weather data.
The figures come from the, ahem, Government Accountability Office. Not too Orwellian, that name.
The Economist writes that "[t]his three-headed monster has turned out to be the monster it sounds, because the DOD and NOAA have different requirements, and nobody is really in charge." Nobody in charge of a government program? Imagine that! I wonder what the Ostroms would say? I know what Rothbard would have said:

Well Bill, if you want criticism of their work, there's an easy solution: do some reading and come back here and let us know what you think. I'm sure Pete, who knows their work much better than I do, could offer some criticism, but it would be much more interesting to have our commenters provide it - after, of course, reading the work in question. That would make for a really high-level blog discussion.

And if you do it, I might even buy you a bracelet with "WWRT?" on it. ;)

"And if you do it, I might even buy you a bracelet with "WWRT?" on it. ;)"

You might really want to look into that, they'd sell like crazy over at the LvMI.

"Person-to-person, citizen-to-citizen relationships are what life in democratic society is all about. Democratic ways of life turn on self-organizing and self-governing capabilities rather than presuming that something called 'the Government' governs."

This is a sensible view of how democracy should be, but I fear that at least in Europe democracy is considered instead to be mass participation to collective choices, which consists in drawing crosses at the election day and crying and shouting to get benefits on other groups.

This is the rousseauian view of democracy, and up-to-date it's the winning one. In Italy there has been an important scholar writing more or less that any limit to the collective democratic will is authoritarian by definition, and although that sentence was written 20 years ago to criticize Hayek (I'd guess a fascist, in his view), I don't think that the intellectual environment has changed very much. And for what concerns the above mentioned crying and shouting, it appears that in France it is nowadays an art form.

There appears to be a crowding-out effect between the two views of politics: the more it is possible to get benefits by waving hands in public the less time and resources are spent into mutual help, community building, individual responsibility.

A question arises whether the good view of democracy can become majoritarian if an interventionist government sponsors the shouting & crying version of political activism crowding out the other one.


PS Is there a more or less complete graduate level manual on public choice? I'm interested also in formal models.


Dennis Mueller, Public Choice (Cambridge) is probably a good place to start ---

You could also look -- since you are interested in formal modeling -- at the literature in social choice theory.

Thank you very much, it's now in my wishlist. I checked I have access to "Public Choice"

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