What do the Paradise Papers, Thomas Piketty, the Occupy movement and the Trudeau government’s fiscal reform all have in common? Answer: They play on the perception that there exists an undeclared war between the classes. The talk of inequality that appears almost daily in the media is always based on an opposition between different social classes vaguely defined by their income levels.
In the United States, this vision of class warfare due to inequality is also increasingly prevalent. A new book released in June accuses the American right of having a secret plan to limit the ability of governments to engage in “wealth redistribution.” The author, Nancy MacLean, teaches at Duke University. She accuses economist and Nobel laureate James Buchanan of having developed public choice theory in order to sow mistrust of government action among Americans. She then accuses Charles and David Koch, the multibillionaire brothers often cited by conspiracy theorists, of having devoted funds to the dissemination of these ideas. Together, Buchanan and the Koch brothers, modern-day arch villains, apparently achieved the tremendous feat of chaining democracy, hence the title of her book: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
We might think that Americans’ appetite for conspiracy theories is well-known, as we were reminded of recently by the release of documents concerning the assassination of JFK, and that north of the 49th parallel, we are immune to such things. After all, accusing the Republicans in Congress of secretly wanting to reduce income taxes, or of clandestinely limiting government waste, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And yet, there are many intellectuals and media outlets here in Canada that harbour vague suspicions that defenders of the free market are actually serving the interests of the rich and powerful and don’t really believe the things they say.
As president of the Montreal Economic Institute, I have often heard these kinds of more-or-less veiled accusations, implying that we are paid mouthpieces of X or in the pocket of Y. The funding of the MEI, a private organization, is a recurring theme among our opponents when they have no factual arguments left. This kind of criticism omits (intentionally or not?) any consideration of the relevant fundamental causal link — namely that the people who support us do so because we say what we say, not that we say what we say because these people support us. Yet this basic nuance is easy to grasp.
Ms. MacLean attacks the theory of public choice without ever rebutting its fundamental principles. This theory takes as a starting point the fact that politicians and bureaucrats are not angels in the service of some common good, but simply human beings who also have their own interests at heart. All of the intellectuals, the organizations and the university centres who share the ideas of James Buchanan become suspect in the eyes of the author not because they proclaim falsehoods, but simply because they disseminate ideas that she herself abhors. She thus insinuates that there is a hidden agenda behind all this. Yet inefficient government programs and waste are very real things.
If there is a lack of trust in the government and its interventions in the United States, it is more the result of their history and their political culture than of some plot hatched in the 1950s. From the Declaration of Independence to the Tea Party movement, a large number of Americans have always mistrusted politicians and bureaucrats who claim to serve the “common good” or the “public interest” in order to implement costly programs with often unintended consequences.
Personally, I think we have to be skeptical of the declared good intentions of those who want to govern us. The MEI has made its mark precisely by showing that many policies do not live up to their stated intentions. It is facts, analysis and experience that support this conviction — and not a conspiracy, despite what Nancy MacLean thinks. And even when the declared intentions are sincere, it nonetheless remains true that laws and regulations often entail unintended effects, which sometimes even run contrary to the initial objectives. In short, you don’t have to be an angry libertarian or a Koch brothers lackey to arrive at this conclusion.
Incidentally, my institute is unfortunately not funded by the Koch brothers. I wish I could say that we were, but we are not, at least not for now. (I’m working on it.) But you don’t need to look very far to find a financial link that can be used to discredit ideas. You need only observe that Democracy in Chains, a book that denounces those who mistrust the American government, was subsidized, at least in part, by… the American government!
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.