Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 15, 2017

in Adam Smith, Philosophy of Freedom, Virginia Political Economy

… is from pages 14-15 of my colleague Richard Wagner’s superb new intellectual biography of James Buchanan, James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy; here, Dick is speaking of Buchanan’s time at the University of Virginia (1956-1968) where, for much of this time, his colleagues included Ronald Coase, Warren Nutter, Gordon Tullock, Rutledge Vining, and Leland Yeager:

The founding participants in the program of Virginia political economy stood far outside the mainstream [economics] presumption, both methodologically and normatively.

Normatively, they all stood squarely within the classical liberal tradition that reached back to Adam Smith and David Hume, was associated strongly with John Stuart Mill, and was central to Chicago-style economics during the time of Frank Knight and Henry Simons.  The classical liberal outlook operated from a default position that people should be free to pursue their desired activities so long as they did not violate the similar rights of other people in the process.  This default in favor of laissez faire, it should be noted, was only a point of departure and not a destination.  The initial presumption was in favor of individual liberty and not collective control, giving to proponents of collective control the burden of showing how individual liberty violated the rights of other individuals, thereby creating a case for collective action.

DBx: One can honestly believe, contrary to Jim Buchanan and his colleagues, that the classical-liberal presumption is inappropriate or not useful.  One cannot, however, honestly insist that this presumption has no honorable history.  And nor can one legitimately treat those who do sincerely believe in the classical-liberal presumption as closet racists intent on preventing ordinary people from thriving and on creating and protecting unjust privileges for oligarchs.  Nancy MacLean’s uninformed treatment of Jim Buchanan and those of us who share his classical-liberal presumption is both illegitimate and ungenerous.

In the photo shown above – taken on the University of Virginia’s campus (almost certainly in Rouss Hall) in November 1962 – are pictured, left to right, Ronald Coase, Duncan Black, Jim Buchanan, James Ferguson, Warren Nutter, Gordon Tullock, and Leland Yeager.  Seldom has there been assembled in any one room as much economic knowledge and wisdom as you see assembled above.


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