I’ve just watched a talk by Dan Klein on his new book. Dierdre McClosky and Peter Boettke were on hand as discussants. Let me say by way of disclosure that I have had two courses with Boettke, have had multiple encouraging discussions (over meals, usually) with McClosky, and was graciously invited to present a paper to Klein’s small workshop at GMU. Let me further say that I have not read Klein’s book, and that these comments are in response to the talk and Q&A which followed only.
Klein’s book is about the importance of the recovery of use of allegorical forms in explaining economic concepts. Adam Smith was very good at this, and demonstrated the importance of allegory particularly within his less well known work, “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” McClosky noted that TMS was largely neglected from the early 1800’s until relatively recently, within the last 40 years. Smith had various opinions of his own works, but found TMS worthy of a late edition, just a year before his death. The centrality of the importance of the work to Smithian thought cannot be the reason for its neglect.
McClosky noted a major shift in theology at the same time. Now this is quite interesting because the theological shifts in Great Britain included a new element, Evangelicalism. The Priesthood of Roman Catholicism sought to influence the politics of the king under feudalism. The pastors of the Reformation became dictators, or lent their support to dictators. Anglicanism was peculiar in its relationship to crown and Parliment. Evangelicalism moved further toward seeking its influential role through Parliment. It was not to the King that the Abolitionists sent their petition, but to Parliment.
When seeking to influence a king, one needs to emphasize all the virtues. Prudence is important, to be sure, but so is justice, and temperance, etc. When dealing with a dictator, prudence is not always enough. Tullock showed us that it might be enough to match the Laffer curve under a parlimentary structure, but that autocracy has peculiar problems of time and succession to deal with which make the importance of adopting a particularly long time horizon very important. The same is true for a sole proprietorship firm. It can thrive or die depending upon the successor’s abilities to manage. A publicly owned firm, however, has a longer time horizon which is afforded by its structure. I’m not sure we can say that parliment has a longer time horizon, but we can say that the time horizon of any one member of parliment is not as important as that of a king. Similarly, the other virtues may be relatively neglected when dealing with a representative body.
Further, the way the state is approached by religion, be it clergy or popular religion, will be very different under a parlimentary system than under autocracy. Appeals will be made to individual MPs. Propoganda becomes much more important. Also, religion itself is affected by the new structure. Pluralism within a coalition will be accepted when singular issues are brought before the state, such as abolitionism. But that coalition will have to either find a new focal point or it will disintegrate. In the meantime, there will be struggles for dominance among the factions within the coalition. Evangelicalism in the early 1800s was a hot messy stew of rivaling factions.
The one which obtained dominance in many cases, Darbyite Scofieldianism, appealed particularly to nationalism, and provided a cookie cutter solution to the ages old Jewish problem. But other factions survived as well, sometimes in, sometimes out of the coalition.
In the meantime, Bentham may have been particularly astute in forming an alternative sect, perhaps appealing to men of means. A rational calculation approach to policy. Utilitarian and utilizable. Practical, prudent, indeed. With Parliment primarily preoccupied with parsing pecuniary problems prudence predominates. Forming a broader coalition with the Evangelicals in the abolition of the slave trade relied on emphasis on prudence.
When only stakeholders have a voice or a vote, prudence will persist. But when the state seeks to be freed from these prudent constraints it may have to add more voices to the mix. Enfranchisement may have had the effect of introducing the expressive voter to the decision process. That a rich understanding of the role of the expressive voter has only really arrived in the last few years, thinking especially of Bryan Caplan’s book, Myth of the Rational Voter,” should cause us to pause and think harder about the effects of various enfranchisements, and how they might only have been granted when convenient to the decision makers, in a way that Tullock would describe.
We should look at which policies prompted new enfranchisements, and who stood to collect rents in consequence. The more expressive, the more Baptist-y, the policy, the more likely the enfranchisement of a fringe group, or Bootleggers.
Why was TMS forgotten? Because parliment was absolved of the other virtues in part by the Evangelicals. Perhaps even crowded out of that role. Evangelicals took it upon themselves to exercise the virtues that it had formerly spent its energies reminding the state to practice. The Evangelicals indeed became a part of the state, in the Weingast North sense, and so took on the responsibility for practicing that set of virtues, absolving political economy with the explicitly political, or governmental, again in the Weingast-North sense, of any virtue beyond prudence. Later political economy could content itself to think about wealth and wealth alone, or still later with efficient allocation of scarce resources with alternative uses, per Robins. But justice? The other virtues? Normative. Discard. Back to science, or scientism, at least.