a virginia school approach to racial discrmination

This past March, Public Choice published an article I found to be very interesting. It is called “The anti-discrminatory tradition in Virginia School public choice theory” by Phil Magness. I found this article interesting for two reasons. First, I’ve read a fair amount of public choice and, honestly, I had no idea that racial discrimination was a topic they dealt with in detail. Second, after the really misleading work by Nancy McLean on Buchanan, I wanted to read something written that is more level headed and, to be blunt, truthful.

So what is the article about? Magness examines the published and unpublished writings of scholars associated with the “Virginia School” of public choice theory, which focuses on how incentives affect state actors, the theory of rules and and constitutions, and issues like regulatory capture. He focuses on scholars who visited or were affiliated with the organizational home of public choice theory, the Thomas Jefferson Center at the University of Virginia. History has overlooked some figures, like WH Hutt, who wrote entire books about race, such as The Economics of the Colour Bar, and the African American economist Abraham L. Harris. Second, Magness excavates a theory of racial discrimination from the speeches and unpublished writings of these scholars.

It’s a very strong article that manages to be history of economic thought and theory building at the same time. In Magness’ view, the “Virginia” approach to racial discrimination has four big take home points:

  1. Racism leads to regulatory capture: The dominant racial group in society may take control of government regulatory agencies and use their power to harass others.
  2. Racial discrimination makes markets less efficient: Employers who discriminate produce things at higher cost. The converse argument is that these same employers work at a competitive disadvantage.
  3. Racial discrimination is a constitutional problem: A violent majority, or an empowered minority, can use the democratic process to pass racist laws and regulations.
  4. Racial discrimination is a “historical problem:” Oppressive institutions have negative externalities and massive costs. Slavery, for example, required massive enforcement – a diversion of resources – and thus impoverished everyone.

It’s a very interesting perspective that compliments current theorizing on race in sociology. Many sociologists are now focusing on the interactional aspects of race (e.g., Emirbayer/Desmon on race as interactional order, Ray on race a membership criterion) or how racist attitudes/ideologies yield racist policies. This “Virginia” school approach to race adds a political economy perspective that most sociologists of race may not be aware of. Check it out – a fascinating read in intellectual history and an enriching discussion of how discrimination can screw up states and markets alite.


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Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2020 at 2:30 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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