Thursday, June 12, 2014

Turning Aretaic

VA House candidate (and economist) Dave Brat is a fan of Deirdre McCloskey. Oh my. Oh me oh my. People, if stuff like this can happen, why do we even have an AEA at all?

Madison knew something about Democracy (big D for the system rather than for the everyday practice) that might perhaps have eluded more populist thinkers: pure majority rule can be as tyrannical as the worst despot who ever sat on a throne. His prophylactic against public tyranny was constitutional republican constraints on the authority of the US sovereign. I kindly suggest to you that this is insufficient.

Tradeoffs abound, including in politics. The typical high-level tradeoff is between rules and discretion. The Constitution needs to provide a framework for a functioning rule of law, but it must be amendable. The dilemma should be obvious: given enough time and effort, an ambitious sovereign can erode its constitutional fetters enough to get back to the serious business of encreasing its dominion (Hume, of Commerce).

So if in a democracy, the government is us, and we want to gird ourselves against our own propensity for tyranny, what shall we do?

I return to Plato's Divine Maxim: never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. If the citizen is sovereign, this antique, forgotten little gem of jurisprudence is the spoonful of sugar that can help the medicine of citizen governance go down. In Jim Buchanan's terms, it wrings the romance right out of politics. It's delightfully sobering to force yourself to ask "would I be willing to fine, imprison, or execute my parents for this infraction?" And of course, sometimes the answer will be "yes", and of course, people will still disagree on important issues, but this tiny heuristic obliges voters to rid themselves of the many far-mode biases they carry, at least when they enter the voting booth.

So here's my dilemma, closely related to Andrea's Question: knowing this, what should I do? I know from studying economics that the deadweight costs of rent-seeking brought on by ignoring Plato's Divine Maxim erode folks' capacity to cooperate peacefully on their own terms. But I also know that Plato's Divine Maxim is massively unpopular. Scorned, even. I might encourage some of my friends and colleagues to bring it up when they get to the voter preferences part of their Public Choice courses. I might even prod my fellows in the land of PPE to write more about it. But I think the best chance I have of actually convincing another human for realsy-dealsies is to teach my daughter why I think it's a good, low-cost tool for evaluating policy and politicians. And that's the problem. That's exactly the problem.

Imagine if you will the tableau where a precocious middle school girl holds forth on forgotten antique jurisprudence in her civics class. No interpretation of government, progressive, conservative, whiggish, or otherwise (not even mainstream libertarian) hews to this doctrine. It's perhaps classically liberal, as Adam Smith sang of Solon's virtue in TMS, but classical liberalism is a fossil, and it's in neither my self-interest nor my daughter's to have her rile up her teachers or fail her classes.

Then again, if that's what I'm worried about, perhaps I need to learn to exercise another of the classical virtues: courage. The vitality of the Republic may just depend on such small gestures.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?