Leftists and liberals are left with the belief that their opponents are all working in coordination, implementing a single master plan with fiendish efficiency, while they themselves are in hapless disarray. Conservatives have their own versions of a mythology portraying opponents as secretive plotters, focusing on such supposed puppet masters as George Soros, Saul Alinsky, and Frances Fox Piven.
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Each side assumes the existence of a flawless, ruthlessly executed plan on the other side, while bemoaning the chaos and excessive scruples that beset their own allies. It is always tempting to think that the other side is more organized, more motivated, and more seamlessly united than they are, since all one can see are their successes, and not the compromises, mistakes, and frustrations that lie behind those successes. If what MacLean writes were true, the obvious solution for liberals and the left would be to come up with their own centralized approach.
The problem, however, is that it is not true at all. They did not commit wholeheartedly to any one strategy but instead spread their bets across a portfolio of different people and organizations, understanding that most of them would probably fail but hoping that a few would survive and work. Public choice economics was certainly one of the success stories — but even it flourished in unexpected ways. Within economics, it remains a minority approach, but it has had a profound influence on legal and public policy thinking, including among those on the center left such as ourselves.
Public choice economics succeeded in part because it had valuable things to say. Politicians indeed sometimes care more about reelection than doing the right thing. Voters often fail to pay attention, allowing lobbyists to persuade politicians to enact regulations that favor the few rather than the many.
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These arguments may have been best articulated by right-wing thinkers, but they have value for the left too, because they identify real problems. When MacLean depicts people like Buchanan and Cowen as wicked monsters, out to destroy democracy, she excludes the possibility that she or her readers could learn from them. The left and center left should accept that not only do their opponents not have any grand master plan but that having a grand master plan is probably a bad idea.
Like conservatives in an earlier era, they should recognize the limits of their knowledge and capacity to see the future, and diversify their strategies. Some of these strategies will involve mass mobilization like that pioneered by the Indivisible movement, Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders supporters. Others will involve more traditional retail politics, or building strange-bedfellows coalitions with people on the right who are frustrated and angry at Donald Trump.
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Others still will involve building up the intellectual infrastructure for new understandings of politics. In a chaotic political environment, the best way to do this is to encourage experimentation, so as to figure out what works and build on it. That — not sinister Machiavellian plans — is the real lesson of the political success of public choice economics. But Rick Perlstein, an independent historian, has written intelligently and sensitively on the Barry Goldwater movement and the rise of the modern US right.
Angus Burgin, a Johns Hopkins historian, has thoroughly dug into the history of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by the libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek in He showed how a transnational network of free market thinkers helped change the global conversation on political economy. One of us Teles devoted years to making sense of how conservative foundations helped shape the academic discipline of law and economics, built the Federalist Society, and supported criminal justice reform. Henry Farrell is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he has a particular interest in the politics of economic ideas.
Find him on Twitter henryfarrell.
Steven Teles is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea vox.
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Should have been paying attention…. The supposed quote in El Mundo attacking Duns as a failure is a disgrace. Image of pyramid, puppet-masters…. On national radio…. What are you frightened of? Milton held that truth is strong next to the Almighty and needs no shifts to uphold its sway. Grow up for goodness sake. Why are journalists such children?
It seems that you have made up your own mind, which is fine for you, but do not try that on others: they have to make up their own minds without your questionable interference. Ho hum. Your email address will not be published.