Beating the Iron Law of Public Choice – a reply to Peter Boettke

Studying Public Choice theory can be very depressing for would-be reformers as they learn about what we could call the Iron Law of Public Choice.

The students of Public Choice theory will learn from Bill Niskanen that bureaucrats has an informational advantage that they will use to maximizes budgets. They will learn that interest groups will lobby to increase government subsidies and special favours. Gordon Tulluck teaches us that groups will engage in wasteful rent-seeking. Mancur Olson will tell us that well-organized groups will highjack the political process. Voters will be rationally ignorant or even as Bryan Caplan claims rationally irrational.

Put all that together and you get the Iron Law of Public Choice – no matter how much would-be reformers try they will be up against a wall of resistance. Reforms are doomed to end in tears and reformers are doomed to end depressed and disappointed.

Peter Boettke’s defense of defeatism

In a recent blog post Peter Boettke complains about “the inability of people to incorporate into their thinking with respect to public policy some elementary principles of public choice.”

The problem according to Pete is that we (the reformers) assume that policy makers are benevolent dictators that without resistance will just implement reform proposals. Said in another way Pete argues that to evaluate reform proposals we need to analysis whether it is realistic the vote maximizing politicians, the ignorant voters and the budget maximizing bureaucrats will go along with reform proposals.

Pete uses Market Monetarists and particularly Scott Sumner’s proposal for “A Market-Driven Nominal GDP Targeting Regime” as an example. He basically accuses Scott of being involved in some kind of social engineering as Scott in his recent NGDP Targeting paper argues:

“No previous monetary regime, no matter how “foolproof,” has lasted forever. Voters and policymakers always have the last word. However, before beginning to address public choice concerns, it is necessary to think about what sort of monetary regime is capable of producing the best results, at least in principle. Only then will it be possible to work on the much more difficult question of how to make the proposal politically feasible.”

So Scott is suggesting – for the sake of the argument – to ignore the Iron Law of Public Choice, while Pete is arguing that you should never ignore Public Choice theory.

Beating the Iron Law with ideas

I must say that I think Pete’s criticism of Scott (and the rest of Market Monetarist crowd) misses the point in what Market Monetarists are indeed saying.

First of all, the suggestion for a rule-based monetary policy in the form of NGDP targeting exactly takes Public Choice considerations into account as being in stark contrast to a discretionary monetary policy. In that sense NGDP Targeting should be seen as essentially being a Monetary Constitution in exactly same way as for example a gold standard.

In fact I find it somewhat odd that Peter Boettke is always so eager to argue that NGDP targeting will fail because it as a rule will be manipulated – or in my wording would be crushed by the Iron Law of Public Choice. However, I have never heard Pete argue in the same forceful fashion against the gold standard. That is not to say that Pete has argued that the gold standard cannot be manipulated. Pete has certainly made that point, but why is it he is so eager to exactly to show that a “market driven” NGDP targeting regime would fail?

When it comes to comparing NGDP targeting with other regimes of central banking (and even free banking) what are the arguments that NGDP targeting should be more likely to fail because of the Iron Law of Public Choice than other regimes? After all should we criticize Larry White and George Selgin for ignoring Public Choice theory when they have advocated Free Banking? After all even the arguably most successful Free Banking regime the Scottish Free Banking experience before 1844 in the end “failed” – as central banking in the became the name of the game across Britain – including Scotland. Public Choice theory could certainly add to understanding why Free Banking died in Scotland, but that mean that Larry and George are wrong arguing in favour Free Banking? I don’t think so.

So yes, Scott is choosing to ignore the Iron Law of Public Choice, but so is Austrians (some of them) when they are arguing for a gold standard and so is George Selgin when he is advocate Free Banking. As Scott rightly says no monetary regime is “foolproof”. They can all be “attacked” by policy makers and bureaucrats. Any regime can be high-jacked and messed up.

Furthermore, Pete seems to fail to realize that Scott’s proposal is to let the market determine monetary conditions based on an NGDP futures set-up. Gone would be the discretion of policy makers. This is exactly taking into account Public Choice lessons for monetary policy rather than the opposite.

My second point is the Pete’s view is ignoring the importance of ideas in defeating the Iron Law of Public Choice. Let me illustrate this with a quote from Hayek. This Hayek in an interview with Reason Magazine from February 1975 on the prospects of defeating inflation:

“What I expect is that inflation will drive all the Western countries into a planned economy via price controls. Nobody will dare to stop inflation in an ordinary manner because as things are at present, to discontinue inflation will inevitably cause extensive unemployment. So assuming inflation stops it will quickly be resumed. People will find they can’t live with constantly rising prices and will try to control it by price controls and that of course is the end of the market system and the end of the free political order. So I think it will be via the attempt to regress the effects of a continued inflation that the free market and free institutions will disappear. It may still take ten years, but it doesn’t matter much for me because in ten years I hope I shall be dead.”

Here Hayek is basically making a Public Choice argument – the West is doomed. There will not be the political backing for the necessary measures to defeat inflation and instead will be on a Road to Serfdom. Interestingly enough this is nearly a Marxist argument. Capitalism will be defeated by the Iron Law of Public Choice. There is no way around it.

However, today we know that Hayek was wrong. Inflation was defeated. Price controls are not widespread in Western economies. Instead we have since the end of 1980s seen the collapse of Communism and free market capitalism – in more or less perfect forms – has spread across the globe. And during the Great Moderation we have had an unprecedented period of monetary stability around the world and you have to go to Sudan or Venezuela to find the kind of out of control inflation and price controls that Hayek so feared.

Something happened that beat the Iron Law of Public Choice. The strictest defeatist form of Public Choice theory was hence proven wrong. So why was that?

I will suggest ideas played a key role. In the extreme version ideas always trumps the Iron Law of Public Choice. This is in fact what Ludwig von Mises seemed to argue in Human Action:

“What determines the course of a nation’s economic policies is always the economic ideas held by public opinion. No government whether democratic or dictatorial can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology.”

Hence, according to Mises ideas are more important than anything else. I disagree on that view, but I on the other clearly think that ideas – especially good and sound ideas – can beat the Iron Law of Public Choice. Reforms are possible. Otherwise Hayek would have been proven right, but he was not. Inflation was defeated and we saw widespread market reforms across the globe in 1980s and 1990s.

I believe that NGDP targeting is an idea that can change the way monetary policy is conducted and break the Iron Law of Public Choice and bring us closer to the ideal of a Monetary Constitution that both Peter Boettke and I share.

PS Don Boudreaux also comments on Pete’s blog post.

—–

Related blog posts:

Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
Is Market Monetarism just market socialism?

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Update: Pete has this comment on Scoop.it on my post:

“Very thoughtful reply to my CP post. I too believe in the power of ideas, but I also believe that any time we assume away public choice issues we are in effect being intellectually lazy.  I think a robust approach to institutional design would explore not only the incentive compatibility of the proposal, but an incentive compatible strategy for its implementation.  Absent that, and we aren’t thinking hard enough.  I have been as guilty as anyone else in this regard, so I am not going to point fingers.  But I’d like us to think harder and clearer about these issues.”

I very much apprecaite Pete’s kind words about my post and fundamentally think that we are moving towards common ground.

Update 2: Scott Sumner also comments on Pete’s post. Read also the comment section – George Selgin has some very insightful comments on the relationship between Free Banking and NGDP level targeting.

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11 Comments

  1. Public Choice theorists “apply” the ‘Iron Law’ to an extreme that if true we would still be living in the stone age (maybe worse). Words can be powerful and ideas can spread and eat away the rot…until even better ideas come along. In other words, over history the Iron Law was broken and ‘upgrade’, only to be broken again, and so on and so on…

    Reply
    • This is just what I was thinking Marcus. New Zealand should have never invented inflation targeting and Hong Kong should still have a corruption problem. I always understood PCT as saying there would be a risk politicians/bean counters would manipulate complicated legislation, not that reform is impossible. NGDPLT isn’t some Utopian scheme, its a simple idea which can be implemented with existing institutions, by existing policy makers, and explained to the public.

      Reply
      • Justin, I´m looking forward to ‘testing’ the real time NGDP forecast on Wendesday!
        It´s the ‘simple ideas’ like NGDPLT that can brake the ‘Iron Laws’. Complicated schemes have less chance. If only they could get the right person to chair the Fed…

  2. Steve Ambler

     /  July 30, 2013

    Great post Lars. I especially like the paragraph on rules-based monetary policy and NGDP targeting as a monetary constitution. David Vestin (JME 2006) shows that giving the central bank a price-level target instead of an inflation target can substitute for commitment when the central bank is forced to operate in an environment characterized by discretion. I think NGDP (level) targeting can do the same.

    Reply
  3. W. Peden

     /  July 30, 2013

    Great post.

    On a happy note, Hayek was not only wrong about the course of events in the late 1970s and 1980s, but also about his lifespan: he lived until 1992, outliving the Soviet Union.

    In fact, if you have 3 hours of your life to spare, Gary North and Mark Skousen recorded an interview with Hayek in about 1986-

    Not only was he alive, but alive and cogent. However, it is true that Hayek’s last official book (The Fatal Conceit) was apparentely almost entirely written by William Warren Bartley using Hayek’s ideas for a final book as a basis for a critical rationalist sociology book.

    Reply
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