Sunday, July 30, 2017

Gordon Tullock's dangerous "minimal federalism"

Branko Milanovic twitted some days ago about a book on sovereignties apparently in Serbo-Croat by Gordon Tullock, so bad according to Milanovic that nobody cared to translate it into English. However, I did some research and found two pieces in English by Tullock that seem to correspond to the same period of time (early 1990s). These are a participation in a roundtable with among others Kenneth Arrow (to me, the one with the best arguments, which I am not aware that he developed in his research work) and a book that is available on-line, entitled "The New Federalist". From what I have seen in Google Scholar, this book has been cited by other authors suchs as Bruno Frey. The latter has some interesting work on what he calls FOCJ: "Functional, Overalpping, Competing Jurisdictions." The link with Tullock is what I believe Tullock calls sociological federalism, by which he means non-territorial sovereignty, that is sovereign institutions based on interests, ethnicity, preferences or any other affinity. Of course one can imagine dangerous developments of this, such as people getting organized only after some sort of ethnic cleansing. But the work of Frey has been interpreted as lending support to institutions like special districts in the US, where the organization of some public services gets structured overlapping but not coinciding with traditional administrative jurisdictional borders. These special districts have advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps would be (or perhaps already are) an input towards a more flexible European Union. In general, the Public Choice school of Tullock and Buchanan has been influential in a sort of free-market minimal federalism with a key role for jurisdictional competition and constraining public intervention. I would include in this tradition Tiebout, Weingast, Frey and also Alesina and Spolaore. Some of the work of these authors is valuable, as are valuable and should be taken seriously some of the contributions of Public Choice, even if those like me who advocate strong public intervention do not share the value judgements behind it. For example, the main points of public choice that government agents are no different from market agents, or that the outcomes of democracy have no particular normative properties for the fact of resulting from majority rule (but what matters is contractual process) are serious points that deserve to be taken into account, and that progressive authors such as Amartya Sen have taken seriously and responded to. But one can see the dangers of pushing the ideas of Tullock too far in federalism. For example, seeing some of his words in the above mentioned roundtable, one can be afraid of the kind of world that awaits us if that minimal federalism is ever implemented:
-"From 1790 until 1930, the US federal government, except in war time, regularly absorbed about 2.5 percent of our GNP. Most of that was used to mainatin a rather small military force (...). We got along beatifully -in fact, rather more beatifully tan we have gotten along since we became more fully integrated, I would say." I'm not sure that African-Americans among others share this view.
-"So, what we need, theoretically, is free trade and a lack of economic integration beyond that (...). Will the European Common market become a contribution to free trade, or will it build a tariff wall of its own, or will it disintegrate? I would not be at all surprised if it disintegrates." I'm happy that his prediction has failed on this.
-He also argues that Canada has no justification for existing beyond the fact that they do not like the USA: "if I were to offer them advice, I would suggest they just disintegrate." Here I'm happy that Canadians did not follow his suggestion, and remain today one of the most civilized federations on Earth.

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