Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 1, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation

… is from page 14 of James M. Buchanan‘s 2005 book, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism:

But the classical liberal edifice would fall quickly if persons are independent in the sense that they fail to recognize themselves in an interdependent nexus of social interaction – a nexus that involves other persons to be reciprocating, acting and choosing human beings like themselves.

Indeed.  No one person knows, has ever known, or can possibly know all that must be known to make a pencil.  Vast social cooperation is required for the production of something even so mundane (to us lucky moderns!) as an ordinary commercial-grade pencil.  We are all, each and every one of us, hugely and mightily dependent upon the creativity, knowledge, efforts, choices, and willingness to take risks of hundreds of millions – in some cases, of billions – of our fellow human beings.

(I review this book here.)

Be Sociable, Share!



18 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


W.E. Heasley July 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

“Vast social cooperation is required for the production of something even so mundane (to us lucky moderns!) as an ordinary commercial-grade pencil.”

Excellent point. Will offer two edits.

“Vast social cooperation [in a free environment] is required for the [most efficient] production of something even so mundane (to us lucky moderns!) as an ordinary commercial-grade pencil.”

Greg Webb July 1, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Excellent quote! And, a great example of spontaneous order through voluntary association. You just have to wonder how free individuals could do all this, produce pencils, and then sell them for such a low price without constant supervision and regulation of the Wizards of Washington D.C.

Purpendicular July 2, 2011 at 2:01 am

What I can’t quite understand is why people get so hung up on words, and also why people at the same time demand such precision in the terminology. As Hayek said, the US was founded on (classical) liberal principles. Broadly speaking, Hayek, Hume, Adam Smith, Margaret Thatcher, Reagan, Burke and Popper were liberals. With regards to Burke and Smith, I read somewhere that they themselves claimed to be in agreement about everything. To classify one as liberal and the other as conservative must surely then be nonsense.

I am not claiming complete purity in the liberal beliefs of those mentioned above, but why should one have to? The greatest deviation to me, that I find very serious because it such a negation of core principles, is with regards to drugs and other things that (maybe) does harm to oneself. Here, for Reagan the idea of personal responsibility and a protected personal sphere went out the window

I live in France and here, according to the local mainstream media, “liberal” means the imaginary tribe that measure people’s worth in terms of how much money they make. If “liberal” doesn’t sound cold and heartless enough they use “ultra liberal”.

The main problem with the word “conservative” is that what you want to conserve varies from country to country. To some in the US, it is classical liberalism, to others it is “traditional Christian values”. Here in France it is traditional catholic paternalism, to some extent De Gaulle’s vision, or an intrusive dirigiste state.

The left in the US found that “liberal” had a good ring to it, so they laid claim to it. But they could equally well have called themselves something equally arbitrary, like the zebras or the treehuggers. That the left calls themselves liberals is no reason to get ones knickers in a twist and include them in a search for what “liberal” really means.

I am a physicist by training, and maybe it comes more natural to me to do the natural scientist thing and just say “let’s call what Hayek, Smith, Burke, Reagan and Thatcher stood for liberal for now and add a bit more precision when we need it”. No one knows what an electron really is. Physicists don’t even ask the question. They simply slap the label of “electron” on a phenomenon with certain properties.

Gordon Richens July 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

What annoys me about the left is their habit of conscripting the vernacular of others to suit their purpose – or worse, to attach terms that initially described the left to their opponents.

Laying claim to the term “liberalism” is an early example of the former. Associating fascism with the “right” is an example of the latter. I note that some leftists are beginning to test the waters by attaching the term “libertarian” to themselves – Bill Maher being a recent example.

Josh S July 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

My least favorite co-option is the use of the term “justice” to refer to government goons coming and stealing things you worked for in order to give them to someone who didn’t.

tdp July 3, 2011 at 6:04 pm


vikingvista July 4, 2011 at 5:04 am


Scott July 2, 2011 at 3:25 am

Perhaps a little harsh on conservatives… most people who identify themselves as conservative are practically classically liberal, they just don’t realize it yet or perhaps they are unfamiliar with the term classical liberal because of the distortion the term liberal has undergone in western society.

I also find the following statement a little too evasive or lacking.
” true liberals willingly allow peaceful adults do whatever they please” Obviously this could not be the case, for instance, if someone considered trespassing peaceful while another did not. Adding the word peaceful, then is the caveat of all, practically making the sentence void of substance. We then must define what are peaceful acts and what are not.

“conservatives and modern “liberals” disdain and distrust ordinary men and women. True liberals do not.” I think this needs to be explained. I think socialism requires a great deal of trust in ordinary men to expect them not to behave according to their own best interest.

Josh S July 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm

No, socialism requires a great deal of trust in the socialist government to appoint only those men who act in the best interest fo society. The socialist believes the vast masses of men are selfish, brutish fools, but that the bureaucrat is the exception to this rule.

kyle8 July 3, 2011 at 8:57 am

That does not square with anything ever written by any of the leftist thinkers. They all believed, as Rousseau did, that man was basically good and only society corrupted him.

Classical Liberals, like today’s conservatives, and Libertarians understand that men are motivated by self interest and therefore we desire a system where those self interests are balanced against one another, and harnessed by the invisible hand, for the good of society.

tdp July 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm

How then do you explain the disgusting elitism of Lenin’s “vanguard party” and Trotsky’s nauseating descriptions of the proletariat moving “more melodiously and harmoniously” (paraphrased) after social engineering by its betters.

Also, if man is so “corrupted” by society, as leftists claim, that he cannot be entrusted with any self-governance for his own safety, I would say that socialism puts very little trust in mankind.

tlh July 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

This is all pretty well examined by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Conflict_of_Visions

Classical liberalism is pretty well within the “constrained vision” tradition, and socialism, etc., is pretty well within the “unconstrained vision” tradition.

Gil July 2, 2011 at 4:08 am

Does a person who makes a pencil needs to know where the ingredients from? Any more than a jeweller needs to know that gold came from supernovae? Of pencil makers know the steps of making a pencil (otherwise it couldn’t be done) but the way the ingredients were sourced changed with time.

Gordon Richens July 2, 2011 at 11:19 am

“Does a person who makes a pencil needs to know where the ingredients from?”
The answer is, of course, no. But somebody needs to. Hence the necessity of “vast social cooperation”.

Single Acts Of Tyranny July 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Great example, I think I have seen a video from some years ago of Milton Friedman making a similar argument?

Seth July 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm

That’s right. He was explaining Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil”, which Don wrote an Afterword to here (http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl2.html).

Russ’s last guest on EconTalk mentioned that Adam Smith also makes the same points about woolen coats.

david nh July 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

HI Don. Good quote. Looks like a book worth having.

I note that on the same Amazon page, in the reviews of Buchanan’s book, someone by the name of John Gray (http://www.amazon.com/John-Gray/e/B000AQ0VXU/) is also mentioned favourably. Are you familiar with his work?

tdp July 3, 2011 at 5:57 pm

This is the ONE paragraph needed to win any argument against a Mao_Turd or YASAFI type. All of their horrible, rambling, unsupported arguments boil down to the idea that libertarians are selfish exploiters who hate poor people and never think about others.

Previous post:

Next post: