Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Privilege and Public Choice Theory

Public choice is dead. Long live public choice.
Arguably, at a time when public choice theory is manifesting as never before in the United States, its father, Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan passed away at the age of 93 in January. According to the Economist in, “The voice of public choice” Buchanan was one of a small group of economists who wondered if the state was up to the task of correcting market failures. His question centered on whether the political actors who comprised the state could act for the collective or, rather, would incentives and self-interest prevail and to what end from an equity and efficiency perspective.
It is this political economic perspective of public choice theory paired with Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” that I am struggling to reconcile as we consider the assumptions under and institutions through which resources are secured and allocated through a public finance lens. As more eloquently stated by Buchanan, this question of “how to obtain a combination of efficiency and justice under majority rule” was one that he identified at heart of his work and that of his contemporaries in “Public Choice: Politics Without Romance”.

However, I am not confident that this question has been adequately answered, in theory or in practice.  In Buchanan and Tullock’s "The Calculus of Consent" they differentiate between two levels of collective action where the public choice construct operates: day-to-day politics and constitutional politics. Ultimately, they argue that varying levels of collective action (i.e. majorities, supermajorites, etc.) should be required dependent on the reach of the proposed policy change.  In varying the level of collective will required, government can provide imperfect, but sufficient protections for minorities while achieving a reasonable level of efficiency—or Pareto optimum. Buchanan rightly argues that whether one believes in market failures or government failures, both are subject to forces of self-interest and critiques on the rationality of actors.

This is where McIntosh’s work on white privilege enters and, arguably, plays a significant role.  In regards to the market and government, in both instances, minority groups lack significant bargaining power and, often times, sufficient information to shape possible choices or make rational ones. McIntosh outlines this reality through microcosmic choices and situations in daily life where the privilege of being a member of the cultural majority—white (and male) enhances the perception of choice and free will.  Buchanan is a member of this class, as are most of those actors in power in our private markets and government and this reality has implications on the assumptions embedded in his work.

In questioning this, it is not my intention to imply that those in the cultural majority are actively seeking to institute policy or finance measures that would oppress or undermine cultural minorities.  Rather, my concern is that unless those in the majority are sufficiently meta-cognitive, how choice—whether it is generated by the market or government—is created will always be imperfect and, frequently, discriminatory—resulting in the paradox of “choicelessness”.  Increasing the membership of minority groups in leadership positions will go a long way to mediating this reality, but in the interim, it is incumbent upon the those in leadership and the cultural majority to actively work to consider their own positionality and the assumptions associated with it, as well as engage a broad base of individuals to better understand all policy implications, and create meaningful choices.  It is my hope that as we all use our degrees to work in the public interest, we will be mindful of our own privilege and work to ensure that all members of our community have real choice.  

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