Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 9, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Reality Is Not Optional, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 55 of my late Nobel laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s insightful 1979 article “Politics Without Romance,” as it is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty:

Once we so much as move beyond the simple committee or town-meeting setting, however, something other than the passive response of suppliers [of public goods] must be reckoned with in any theory of politics that can pretend to model reality.  Even if we take only the single step from town-meeting democracy to representative democracy, we must introduce the possible divergence between the interests of the representative or agent who is elected or appointed to act for the group and the interests of the group members themselves.

DBx: I understand that my training as an economist ‘biases’ me.  (Can someone point to a discipline the training in which does not then ‘bias’ its practitioners?)  I understand also that my bias might be especially strong given that I began reading Jim Buchanan’s works while still an undergraduate – that I later was a colleague of Buchanan’s and Tullock’s – and, indeed, that I served for several years as the Director of the Center for Study of Public Choice.  I plead guilty to being “biased.”

But I’ve also another plea – this one, for a clear-eyed, objective, unbiased person – say, Nancy MacLean – to tell me what is objectionable about Buchanan’s above-quoted statement?  Why is it objectionable to do political theory with the understanding that, with representative democracy, there is a “possible divergence between the interests of the representative or agent who is elected or appointed to act for the group and the interests of the group members themselves”?  What is the better alternative to recognizing this possibility?

If Nancy MacLean were to write a book on principal-agent law, would she dismiss as uncharitable those legal scholars who refuse to assume that agents always and naturally represent the interests of their principals perfectly?  More practically, if MacLean were to hire a real-estate agent to sell her house, would she simply give – or has she simply given? – that agent carte blanche to act on MacLean’s behalf however that agent chooses?  I ask these questions because I’m still amazed – no doubt due to my bias – that on page 58 of Democracy in Chains MacLean, seemingly in all seriousness, writes:

And, in their assumption that individuals always acted to advance their personal economic self-interest rather than collective goals or the common good, Buchanan’s school went further, projecting unseemly motives onto strangers about whom they knew nothing.

The allegedly “unseemly motives” are nothing more than the self-interest that nearly all lawyers and all sound economists assume when doing their work.  Indeed, these motives are identical to the motives that each of us assumes is operative in the actions of all people with whom we interact commercially.

All contracts that specify more than price and quantity – and perhaps even these – are written by people who MacLean would describe (were she consistent) as “projecting unseemly motives” onto others (some of whom they have met, but many of whom are “strangers about whom they know nothing”).  If such prudent assumptions about other people’s motives are accepted readily when we do legal analysis – and when lawyers actually practice law – what is so objectionable about using such assumptions when doing political theory?


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