Oxford — It isn’t possible to entirely separate economics from politics. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a type of economic research called “public choice,” which is the application of economics to politics.
Dr. William F. Shughart II, an economics professor at the University of Mississippi, recently had his 10nth book published, “Policy Challenges and Political Responses: Public Choice Perspectives on the Post-9/11 World.”
“Basically the book is an attempt to use 9/11 and some of the policy issues that have surfaced since then to demonstrate the vibrancy of the public choice field,” Shughart said. “It covers the waterfront from the proposed European Union constitution to terrorism and everything in between.”
Shughart wrote the first and last chapters and edited the rest of the book along with Robert Tollison of Clemson University. The book includes articles from other specialists around the world, including James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986. It was originally a compilation of papers commissioned from leading economists and printed as a special issue of Public Choice, an internationally distributed academic journal. Shughart serves as senior editor for the publication whose articles provide important insights into collective decision-making processes.
Call to arms for scholars
Shughart, who is the F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics and holder of the Robert M. Hearin Chair at Ole Miss, said more research is necessary to answer questions and address problems stemming from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It is a call to arms for scholars to start doing more work in the areas of current policy interest, ranging from education and tort reform to campaign finance, European constitution-writing and transnational terrorism,” Shughart said. “9/11 was a good opportunity to revisit the important issues the field of public choice has something to say about.”
Shughart said world events continually present new problems for analysis, perhaps none more important than the rise of Islamist terrorism. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, brought some old questions back to the surface. A decade after President Bill Clinton proclaimed the era of big government to be over, there was a huge run-up in military spending appropriated to defeat the Taliban, to topple Saddam Hussein and to wage a global “War on Terror” combined with equally massive increases in domestic spending for public education, for homeland security and for regulating corporate accounting practices, among others.
“The post-9/11 economic recession combined with deficit-financed income-tax cuts produced unprecedented growth in the size of the federal government during President George W. Bush’s first term,” Shughart said. “The government’s scope, too, has been expanded by passage of the USA Patriot Act, the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and congressional adoption of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission for reorganizing the American intelligence community under a new Director of National Intelligence.
“Europe, meanwhile, introduced a new currency and began the process of writing and ratifying a new constitution designed to integrate the continent more fully politically as well as economically. The new century brought with it a number of other policy challenges, perhaps less momentous than 9/11, but no less interesting from a public choice perspective.
“President Bush’s defeat of Al Gore on Election Day 2000, marred by doubts about the outcome in Florida, raised concerns about the accuracy of vote counts and generated calls for replacing the winner-takes-all Electoral College with a more democratic method of selecting presidents.”
Old and new challenges
Some other major issues that continue to engage public debate include the financing of political campaigns, the extent of liability for “pain and suffering” damages under the tort laws and the merits of vouchers for promoting school choice.
“The old and new policy challenges of the century just begun are problems of collective decision-making, to which public choice scholars can bring their unique perspective,” Shughart said. “That is the task we set for the contributors to this book. They were invited to assess the state of the public choice literature in key policy areas and to offer their thoughts about future directions of research in light of current events.
“Public choice scholars have not yet resolved some of the field’s most fundamental questions, such as what motivates a free people to vote in the first place. However, by laying out public choice frameworks for analyzing some of the policy challenges of the post-9/11 world, our contributors demonstrate the energy and continuing relevance of the public choice research program.”
Collectivism in retreat, but…
Shughart says that one of the ironies of the new world order that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union is that, except perhaps in the isolation of the academy, the intellectual foundations of collectivism are everywhere in retreat. “Unfettered markets are widely acknowledged to be superior to government planning as engines of economic prosperity,” he said. “Supplanting totalitarianism with democracy has become a key foreign policy goal of the major western powers. Yet, in many of these nations, including the United States, governments continue inexorably to expand both in size and scope. The era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher seemingly has been consigned to the dustbin of history. New domestic spending initiatives to provide prescription drug benefits for senior citizens, to ‘leave no child behind’ in the public schools and to strengthen homeland security against the threat of terrorism have, under an ostensibly ‘conservative’ Republican president, triggered rates of governmental growth in the United States not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
In one chapter of the book, “Afraid to be Free: Dependency as Desideratum,” James Buchanan wrote that people are afraid to be free and prefer security to liberty. Demanding protection from the many uncertainties of modern life, they give up their freedom to make their own choices to others, thereby evading responsibility for deciding how much money to set aside for their retirement years or how to pay their own healthcare expenses.
Shughart said Buchanan’s overarching point is that the growth of government is more a matter of “bottoms-up” demands than of “top-down” dictates. As such, socialism will survive and be extended unless people stop being addicted to state welfare, perhaps in realization that the cost of more government is extremely high tax rates and the erosion of civil liberties. The population may need to accept compromises, such as raising the age at which retirees can begin drawing Social Security or limiting participation in welfare programs through means testing.
Shughart, who received his doctorate from Texas A&M University, worked on the book for about two years before publication. He said that is about average for the other nine books he has written on topics such as antitrust policy, tax policy, managerial economics, industrial organization and the New Deal. In addition, he has published more than 180 journal articles, book reviews and chapters in other books.
He just finished three entries, on “Microsoft,” the “Tobacco Settlements” and the “Tyranny of the Majority (and Minority),” for the “Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars,” scheduled for publication by M.E. Sharpe in 2008.
Mark Van Boening, interim chair and associate professor of economics at University of Mississippi, said Shughart’s work has brought the university a lot of exposure. “Shughart is a very prolific writer and one of the top researchers in this department,” Boening said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.