Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 12, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 62 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan’s May 1988 American Economic Review article, “Contractarian Political Economy and Constitutional Interpretation,” as this article is reprinted in Choice, Contract, and Constitutions (2001), which is volume 16 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan:

If, however, the organic or communitarian paradigm is rejected in favor of an individualistic one, implications emerge that embody both methodological and normative content.  If individuals, or organizations of individuals, are the units that enter into exchanges, the values or interests of individuals are the only values that matter for the quite simple reason that these are the only values that exist.  Such terms as “national goals,” “national interest,” and “social objectives” are confusing at best.  Individuals in a community may, of course, share values in common and they may agree widely on specific goals or objectives for policy directions to be taken by their political organization.  But this very organization, like others, exists only for the purpose of furthering individual values and interests.

DBx: One is free to disagree with this method of doing economic and political analysis.  One may, instead, insist that there are indeed “national interests” and “social objectives” that somehow exist independently of the individual human beings who comprise the nation and society.  But what one may not legitimately do is to accuse those, such as Jim Buchanan, who employ this method of analysis of thereby being hostile to liberal values, to civil society, or to political equality.  No such conclusion follows from the use of this method.  This method, after all, has a long and honorable history.  Nor may one legitimately conclude that to use methodological individualism is thereby to assume that individuals are not social creatures, each deeply influenced by the actions and talk of other individuals.

But beware of rejecting methodological individualism in favor of some “holistic” method of analysis – say, a method of analysis that is premised on the existence of a “national interest” that emerges from some source other than from the desires, interests and choices of each of the many individuals in the nation (for example, from “history”).  In practice, the detailed contents and contours of this “higher” interest – say, the “national interest” – must be determined or specified, or “discovered,” in order to be acted upon.  And those who determine or specify, or “discover,” just what these detailed contents and contours are will inevitably be flesh-and-blood individuals.  Individuals in power, or with influence on those in power, will in fact make this determination and specification, or “discovery,” even though these individuals will at the same time proclaim that they are but the heralds of the “nation,” of “history,” of god, or of whatever superhuman interest individuals on the ground are being enticed to obey and follow.


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