Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 27, 2017

in Economics, Hubris and humility, Man of System, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 53 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1982 article “The Related but Distinct ‘Sciences’ of Economics and of Political Economy” as this article is reprinted in Moral Science and Moral Order, Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan:

Economists must, however, understand that the underlying normative purpose of the whole exercise is that of facilitating comparison of institutional alternatives.  “Economic science” is not to be conceived as offering assistance to selected agents who seek to use scientific knowledge to control others.

DBx: A central theme of Jim Buchanan’s work from the start – from 1949 when he published his first professional paper until his death in January of 2013 – is the importance of government-by-widespread agreement rather than by ruler(s) over ruled.

For Jim, the role of the economist was to analyze the workings of alternative institutional structures – most importantly, markets versus politics – and to share his or her findings with the general public.  Jim’s hope and belief was that the general public, so informed, would then reach widespread agreement about which matters to leave to commercial markets and which to turn over to the state and other alternatives.  It was not economist’s place to play any role in imposing his or her preferred pattern of institutional arrangements; it was the economist’s place to do his or her best to explain the workings of these alternative arrangements so that each person who was to live under the arrangements would be informed when participating in democratic processes to choose among competing, alternative institutional arrangements.  (Among the countless flaws in the heavy package of flaws that is Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is the fact that MacLean completely misses this central theme of Buchanan’s work.  It’s as if someone wrote a book about Albert Einstein’s work and completely missed the attention that Einstein gave to the theory of relativity.  Or, no, it’s worse: it’s as if the Einstein biographer’s main theme is that Einstein rejected relativity.)

Although I believe that Jim was too optimistic about the prospects of such genuinely democratic governance, I fully agree with his criticism of economists who fancy their task to be advisors to a social engineer, whether that engineer be a single ruler, an elected assembly of representatives, or state mandarins.  It’s thrilling and ego-bloating to advise those who behave as secular gods.  But it’s also appallingly arrogant, officious, soul-corrupting, and socially destructive.


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