I am an economist and Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research. As described by my colleague Phil Magness, the headline of an article from May 2018 was recently changed on your website from “Meet the Economist Behind the One Percent’s Stealth Takeover of America” to “Meet the Architect Behind America’s Racist Economics.”
I am writing to urge you to address this deeply problematic headline today, June 16, 2020. I make this letter open because I believe it addresses important issues regarding free-market economics and the fight against racism that I raise to challenge all sides of the economic debate.
While I do not like the idea that I need to qualify myself to criticize this headline, it may help my criticism resonate. As the son of parents who were politically active on the left in the 1960s, I very clearly recall racism as the first concept I ever associated with evil, too young to even remember the conversations that had planted that seed. My own evolution has been away from their progressive politics and especially left-leaning economics, but I believe I am honoring their values and trying to achieve their goals in the best (and woefully imperfect) way I know how.
I have nothing specific to add to the debate over economist James Buchanan and the book Democracy in Chains, the topic of the 2018 article in question. But as I describe here, the ideas Buchanan helped pioneer known broadly as public choice are one of three reasons I ultimately rejected state economic intervention as a means to achieve the goals I still share with many on the left, including fighting racism, poverty, access to education and healthcare, among others.
Together, the public choice theory of Buchanan along with the ideas of competition and knowledge associated with F.A. Hayek and others answered the question that haunted me as a political progressive and economist trained in the quantitative neoclassical tradition: where, at least in my lifetime, had all the progress gone? Interestingly, many on the left have similarly tried to paint Hayek as a monster and make his ideas about knowledge and complexity go away rather than take them seriously.
Neither great thinker was eager to sell their ideas to the left. In the mid-twentieth century their imperative as they saw it was fighting socialism. I believe that in an increasingly complex world, the nation state as the chief driver of social progress is largely a dead end but that these ideas begin to illuminate a different and more robust path to progress. If I can convince a few from both the libertarian and progressive camps of these mutual goals, I will call it a good career.
As an aside, the idea that libertarian or free market economics as these thinkers approach it is the current policy status quo is a gross misconception. By and large mainstream American conservatives approach Buchanan and Hayek as mascots, brandishing their ideas as proof someone has thought about why big government doesn’t work while making all the same mistakes in the end as the left. I do my best to explain the confusion here.
The current calls for reflection, to ask oneself tough questions about where we haven’t risen to the imperative of righting still-existing wrongs in this country with respect to race, are ones to which I hope I can rise. I say all of the above not to claim any economic or moral authority on issues of race but to impart that I’m just one person doing my best, and just how much that struggle means to me.
This is why I find the current headline unacceptable. I realize in the context of our heated debates someone may have made this change in the moment and without much thought. I hope we are soon back in a time when I can debate you on the original headline and many of the underlying economic issues. For today, I simply urge you to change the headline back.
Opponents of free-market economics are entitled to their opinion. Victims of racism are entitled to their anger. But I have seen many attempts to smear whole groups of ideas such as public choice, which reasonable minds can and do see as helping illuminate solutions rather than problems, that amount to weaponizing our tragic history of racism to intimidate good-faith debate. I will not be intimidated. Treating this as a mistake and correcting it is the right thing to do in response to an unfortunate lapse in judgement. Failure to do so in my opinion would amount to among the most egregious instances of such crass intimidation I have seen.
I respectfully conclude by saying I hope this is the last I have to comment on the matter.
Senior Research Fellow, American Institute for Economic Research