Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 10, 2017

in Legal Issues, Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom, Taxes

… is from pages 42-43 of my late colleague Jim Buchanan’s 1977 essay “Democratic Values in Taxation, as this essay is reprinted in Debt and Taxes (2000), which is volume 14 of the The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan:

Once any precept of legal equality is dropped, and once the fiscal system is thought by citizens and by politicians to be a transfer mechanism, how can transfers be restricted to those that might be deemed ethically desirable?  It is precisely at this point that the workings of unbounded democratic politics may violate all precepts of fiscal justice.  If constitutional constraints are dropped, what is to prevent self-interested political entrepreneurs from carrying fiscal measures far beyond those which might be suggested by ethical criteria, or, more likely, from using the fiscal system to implement transfers that bear little or no relationship to the objectives that might be dictated by norms of equity or of justice?  Should social scientists and social philosophers really be surprised when their idealized schemes for income transfers to the demonstrably poor are converted by the legislating process into schemes which produce benefits for members of dominant political coalitions while the poor secure assistance largely as a by-product?  If the whole fiscal structure, taxes and benefits alike, comes to be viewed as the instrument through which zero-sum income and wealth transfers can be produced, simplistic economic theory should tell us that attempts will be made to use this instrument to secure political profits.  A public-choice approach to politics allows us to make the positive prediction that unconstrained democratic process will generate results that satisfy neither the precepts for fiscal justice nor those which can be meaningfully interpreted as incorporating democratic values.

DBx: Do the above words seem to be those of a “wicked” scholar who is both hostile to democracy and a wordsmith ideal to supply intellectual cover to dupe the general public to fall for the nefarious designs of undemocratic and rapacious oligarchs?

I chose the above for today’s “Quotation of the Day” because they are a perfect and concise-as-it-gets representative sample of Jim Buchanan’s expression of his belief that the full attainment of democratic values requires constitutional constraints on majoritarianism.  Of course, Buchanan was hardly alone in arguing against what he called “the electoral fallacy” – in short, the fallacy that holds that majority-rule outcomes in non-corrupt elections with a wide franchise are sufficient to reflect the true ‘will of the people’ and are the greatest possible manifestation of democratic values.  Others people who argued for constitutional constraints on majoritarian democracy – constraints meant to protect democratic values and institutions from being crushed by the exercise of raw majoritarian power – include such thinkers as Montesquieu, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, F.A. Hayek, John Hart Ely, John Rawls, and Bruce Ackerman.  (A listing of such names could go on and on and on and on.)  Of course, the details of any one of these person’s ideal constitutional constraints differ from the details of another person’s ideal constraints.  But constraints in all cases there are.  Why or how Jim Buchanan’s emphasis on constitutional constraints somehow uniquely marks him as an enemy of democracy and friend of oligarchs and autocrats I cannot fathom.


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