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Roger Stone, LBJ, and Public Choice Theory: Notes from my homework

20 Nov
I’ve recently been in a graduate school course that surveys both microeconomics and public choice theory, which led me to observe that the standard critique of voting proferred by some libertarians  is actually a simplifying, and perhaps overly simplistic and fallacious, model of reality, in much the same way the neoclassical model of perfect competition is.  (Though to be sure, paedagically useful in demystifying democracy.). Voters, like consumers, exist outside of time or at a point in time, performing a function statically; there is no discovery process, learning, ignorance, asymmetric information.  Voters are like the neoclassical price taking producers, whose actions have no effect on outcomes.

I once asked one of my favorite frenemies, reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward, if her critique of voting (derived from the work of economist Bryan Caplan and others), wasn’t arithmetically and logically unassailable, and yet false and irrelevant.  It’s not voting that is worthwhile, but campaigning:  it’s an empirical issue of whether 100 hours or $1000 donated to reason magazine, or the Mercatus Center (where public choice theory is articulated), or to a candidate or referendum calling for ending the drug war, stirs more people to rethink the issues.  The critique of voting abstracts from candidates, canvassing and campaigning, just as the neoclassical model of perfect competition leaves out innovating firms, consumers discovering new needs, desires, goods and services, entrepreneurs discovering new factors of production, etc.

Which leads me to wonder if public choice theory has also been over simplifying things.  I don’t know since after years of reading articles about it, or even hearing James Buchanan speak (to my senior high school math class actually, long ago), I’ve only just started reading it.  But I am struck by how in initial formulations the public choice theorist analyzes her “market” of interactions between voters, politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups, and simplifies the way they actually behave.

For example, there are “profit-making” behaviors of politicians that seem to be left out of introductory public choice discussions, in which politicians are simply described as lying for votes and buying votes and donors by stealing from taxpayers to give out subsidies.  I am struck by how this model leaves out two or three major aspects of politician behavior.

The first is how politicians create barriers to entry for competitors, from ballot access laws, character assassination by digging up dirt on potential rivals, and above all, by amassing a huge war chest in a candidate PAC so that no one will waste time running against them.  A politician doesn’t need to buy votes if instead you buy donors who fund such a huge war chest that no serious rival will emerge even if voters don’t approve of you.

Second is how politicians and political assemblies themselves are examples of the regulatory capture public choice economists use to describe bureaucracies.  Recently there has been a lot of evidence that the stock portfolios of elected officials always outperform the market, because they possess insider information about what laws and policies they will promulgate that change the values of firms and stocks.  Aren’t legislatures themselves now bureaucracies that are captured by a politically connected subset of the investor class, who will always inflate the currency to keep stock prices up, and pass laws that favor the stocks they invest in, knowing that those stocks will be favored by their legislation?

And then there is assassination, the ultimate barrier to entry, which Roger Stone now tells us LBJ committed (he also used the FCC to enrich his wife).  How do these large, historically specific, institutional features of particular national political processes fit into public choice theory?

Robert Caro Sins By Omission

Robert Caro

By Roger Stone

As my book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ has become an Amazon Top 100 best seller (# 18 at this writing) I have been asked again and again how Lyndon Johnson’s definitive biographer Robert Caro could have missed LBJ’s role in an assassination plot.

Yet, Caro’s masterful biography is flawed. There were two enormous scandals surrounding LBJ in the fall of 1963. One involved Secretary of the Senate, Bobby Baker, once described by Johnson as “my strong right arm” and the other involved the Texas wheeler-dealer, Billie Sol Estes. A review of news coverage of both scandals reveals substantially more column inches dedicated to coverage of the Billy Sol Estes scandal, yet nowhere in his biography does Caro even mention Sol Estes. Perhaps this is because Baker never testified against Johnson and served his prison sentence without comment while Billie Sol Estes served his prison term but later testified before a grand jury detailing Johnson’s role in the murder of U.S. Agriculture Department official Henry Marshall and President John F. Kennedy. Sol Estes also wrote to the Justice Department outlining the serial murders committed by LBJ. Time for Robert Caro to ‘fess up.

TO READ MORE go to: The StoneZone

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