Tullock on Buchanan and Tullock on Calhoun

by Don Boudreaux on December 10, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

Regular – and even many irregular – readers of this blog know that I have spent a great deal of time detailing some of the many errors that run through what is surely one of the worst books published in 2017, namely, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.  This book is a largely fabricated account of the history of public-choice analysis generally, and of the scholarship of the late Nobel-laureate economist James Buchanan in particular.  (That MacLean’s book is largely fabricated is beyond any doubt to anyone with even a passing familiarity with public choice and with Buchanan’s work.  Whether MacLean’s fabrications are intentional or ‘merely’ the result of utter incompetence at scholarship is a separate question.)

One of MacLean’s central claims is that public-choice scholarship – including specifically Jim Buchanan’s work – was heavily influenced by the writings of the infamous apologist for slavery John C. Calhoun.  Those of us who have studied public choice closely over the years and who knew and interacted professionally with Buchanan were astonished by this claim about Calhoun as references to him arose neither in any of Buchanan’s massive collection of written works nor in his conversation.  (MacLean’s only ‘evidence’ for this influence is a 1992 paper co-written by Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen in which Alex and Tyler show merely that there is some overlap of public-choice scholarship with Calhoun’s ruminations on political organization and collective decision-making.  That Calhoun said some things similar to what public-choice scholars later said is, of course, not remotely as much as a penumbra of evidence that public-choice scholarship was sparked by, and drew inspiration from, Calhoun’s writings.)  The connection between Buchanan and Calhoun is, in short, non-existent.

Not that it’s needed, but further evidence against MacLean’s fictional tale arrived today from Phil Magness, who pointed me to a paper by Gordon Tullock in the December 1975 issue of the American Political Science Review.  Gordon’s paper is titled “Comment on Rae’s ‘The Limits of Consensual Decision.”  I was unaware of this paper until today.  I quote from page 1295 of Gordon’s paper (emphases added):

With respect to the intellectual history, [Douglas] Rae, I think, may have been misled by the literature. The origins of the doctrine of consent or consensus, which he traces through political scientists from Locke and Calhoun, were actually quite disparate from those of the doctrine of Pareto optimality, which was drawn from economics, and there is no obvious reason to believe that the earlier political writers influenced the economists particularly. Pareto, for example, was an Italian engineer and Wicksell a Swede. Their educations would have put little emphasis on Locke, and I doubt that either had even heard of Calhoun.

The positions they adopted were essentially efforts to deal with technical problems which had arisen in economic analysis in their particular fields. It was only after their positions had been developed that the resemblance between their position and that of certain earlier political philosophers was noticed. Even to this day there is a great difference between the two. I myself, for example, have never read so much as one page of Calhoun and have no desire to do so. Similarly, my knowledge of Locke and John Stuart Mill and even Bentham is largely derived from secondary sources. Buchanan, on the other hand, who is interested in philosophy, has done a good deal of reading in these areas, but I must say even in his case he is totally ignorant of the original text of Calhoun’s work.

The fact that there is some resemblance between the two points of view has, however, led to a number of recent writers, who are writing in what I might call the economic tradition, to refer to these political philosophers. In fact, what we have are two totally different streams of intellectual development which happen to lead to somewhat similar ends. I should like to emphasize the “somewhat” in the previous sentence. In my opinion, the resemblance between, shall we say, Locke’s views and those of Wicksell is very superficial. The modern Paretian economists are essentially motivated by technical problems in economic analysis and not by the grand considerations of traditional philosophy which motivated Locke and Mill. Certainly they are not prompted by the desire to protect slavery which, in my opinion, was the foundation of Calhoun’s political philosophy.

Buchanan and Tullock – in their work generally, and specifically in their famous 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent – were analytical economists exploring the logical foundation of collective decision-making.  Had MacLean actually read and understood the Calculus of Consent, she would be embarrassed to portray public choice as she does.  I conclude that MacLean either did not read much public-choice scholarship or that, if she did read much of this scholarship, she’s simply incapable of grasping its message and meaning.

The fact that someone who earns a living as an historian spun such a fantastically false tale about Buchanan and public choice is nothing short of professional misconduct on MacLean’s part.


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