Buchanan on Slavery

by Don Boudreaux on July 30, 2017

in Economics, Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom, Virginia Political Economy

As Phil Magness, myself, and others have argued, Nancy MacLean’s assertion that public-choice scholars have as “their intellectual lodestar” John C. Calhoun is a complete fabrication.  Her assertion is supported neither by evidence nor reason. The likely purpose of this fabrication is the ad hominem one of discrediting Jim Buchanan and public-choice scholarship by linking him and it to one of history’s most infamous apologists for chattel slavery.

Yet not only does no evidence exist to suggest that Buchanan was inspired, or even influenced, by Calhoun, Buchanan himself – in one of his more famous articles – eloquently explained why his normative position supplies an even stronger ethical case against slavery than does the normative position of most classical liberals and “Progressives.”  The article is Buchanan’s profound and brilliant 1991 “The Foundations for Normative Individualism,” which is reprinted in volume 1 (The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty) of the Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.  It is not cited or mentioned in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

I will not here attempt to summarize this deep article, save to (try to) describe its core point and to explain why it belies MacLean’s attempt to tar Buchanan as being a shady sympathizer of a slaver.

The article’s core point is this: Contrary to the belief of nearly all economists – and of many other social and political philosophers (of all political persuasions to the right of Marxism) – no individual has an independently existing “utility function” that he or she consults in order to “maximize his or her utility.”  Instead, at each moment in time, each individual is confronted by options from among which he or she chooses.  Put differently, contrary to what most economists teach – and what many other people believe – there is no set of criteria for each individual that exists, for that individual, ‘out there’ and against which it is even conceptually possible to evaluate the correctness or incorrectness of that individual’s choices.

Note that Buchanan’s argument is not that each individual’s preferences are unique and unknowable to others.  Nearly all economists agree with this proposition.  Instead, Buchanan’s argument is that each individual’s preferences are concrete enough to be called “preferences” only at the moment of choice and only over the specific options that that individual confronts at the moment of choice.

Further, each choice changes the individual, if typically only very slightly.  The choice of A over B made at time 1, by changing the individual, results in this individual making different choices at times 2, 3, … n than he or she would have made had he or she, at time 1, chosen B over A.  Each choice also affects the options that arise in the future for other people.  Here’s Buchanan [pages 287-288; original emphasis]:

[T]he individual chooses that which he chooses, and there need exist neither prior or posterior “knowledge” that enables any choice to be classified as “correct” or “incorrect” against some criterion of well-being.  At the moment of choice itself, the individual selects the alternative that is preferred….

Choice exercised by an individual involves self-creation along with the creation of constraints imposed on the choices of others.  This reciprocal interaction takes place  over a whole temporal sequence.  The “individual,” as described by a snapshot at any moment, is an artifactual product of choices that have been made in prior periods, both by himself or herself and others.  If it is acknowledged that any person, post choice, is necessarily different from the person that made the choice, and that the difference is produced, in part, by the act of choice itself, it becomes absurd to apply criteria of “correctness” directly to choice, as such, including epistemic criteria.


The justificatory foundation for a liberal social order lies, in my understanding, in the normative premise that individuals are the ultimate sovereigns in matters of social organization, that individuals are the beings who are entitled to choose the organizational-institutional structures under which they will live.  In accordance with this premise, the legitimacy of social-organizational structures is to be judged against the voluntary agreement of those who are to live or are living under the arrangements that are judged.  The central premise of individuals as sovereigns does allow for delegation of decision-making authority to agents, so long as it remains understood that individuals remain as principals.

Buchanan explains that his view prevents him (and other who share his view) from falling for the apology for slavery offered “from Plato through the nineteenth century” [p. 289].  That apology is that “persons differ in their intrinsic epistemic capabilities” and, therefore, less epistemically capable people are themselves really made better off by being ruled, even to the point of being slaves, by those people who are more epistemically capable.  Buchanan says in reply to this defense of slavery that even if it is true that some groups of people are less intelligent or less self-responsible than other groups of people, that fact supplies no normative justification for the latter groups of people to superintend and to override the choices of the former group.

I quickly add that Buchanan did not argue that some groups of people are less intelligent or less capable than other groups.  Rather, he argued that the core of his normative defense of individualism is so strong that even if it were true that, say, the Sharks are generally intellectually inferior to the Jets, each Shark is nevertheless as entitled as is each Jet to be free to choose as he or she will, subject only to the same and equal right of other individuals.

Each adult individual is by right sovereign over his or her life; that’s Buchanan’s normative position.  (Buchanan – no Thomas Szaszian he – did note rare exceptions, such as individuals who are medically diagnosed to be severally mentally ill.)  You can dispute Buchanan’s normative position.  You can disagree with it.  But there is simply no way that you can honestly interpret Buchanan’s position as either being in service to racism or as being derived from a racist ideology.  The fact that Nancy MacLean nevertheless offers such an interpretation of Buchanan’s position reveals, once again, that MacLean (1) has not read carefully Buchanan’s works, despite her writing a book that pretends to be about these works; or (2) is too intellectually limited to understand Buchanan’s works, despite her writing a book that pretends to be about these works; or (3) is a liar.  It’s one of the three (or perhaps a combination of these alternatives).

Note briefly two other facts about Buchanan’s argument in this 1991 paper.  First, Buchanan’s insistence that each choice changes the future, both for the chooser and for others, is yet a further reason to dismiss MacLean’s claim (on page 97 of her book) that Buchanan denied that “the late-nineteenth-century notion of a pure market was a fiction.”  Whoever might have believed in a “pure market” – and whatever “pure market” means – Buchanan was never such a person.  Buchanan was not only, and obviously to anyone who knows public choice, well-aware that (in MacLean’s words) “social power shapes markets,” he also understood that markets are artifacts of the billions upon billions of actual choices of millions upon millions of actual, flesh-and-blood individuals.  The accusation that any competent economist believes in the reality of a “pure market” is typically a sign that the accuser doesn’t know what he or she is talking about and is setting out to slay a man of straw.  But to accuse a subjectivist such as Buchanan of believing in any reality of markets that form and are maintained independently of social forces is simply ludicrous.

Second, Buchanan’s argument in his 1991 paper supplies one of the very best responses to “libertarian paternalism.”


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