Buchanan on Liberalism

by Don Boudreaux on May 22, 2006

in Politics

In conversation recently, Bob Higgs praised Jim Buchanan by emphasizing that "Buchanan is deeeeeeep."  Indeed  he is.  I never read Buchanan without feeling as though my vision is widened.

Buchanan’s latest book, Why I, too, Am Not a Conservative (2005), brims with deep and splendid insights.  He is especially good on the meaning of liberalism.  Its indispensable core, in Buchanan’s view (and in mine), is the rejection of the idea that "some ‘good’ … exists independently from individual value creation."

Here’s the longer quotation found on page 22:

If the idealistic vision of politics is accepted, if the activity does, indeed, consist in the continuing search for some ‘good’ that exists independently from individual value creation, there could be little justificatory argument for democratic structures.  In this setting there is a necessary bias toward allowing ‘experts’ to lead the search.  There is little room for democracy in this basically Platonic vision.  If, however, transcendent values do not exist, and persons must create their own values, how can those of some persons be deemed more important than those of others?  In this vision, there is a necessary initial bias toward natural equality, the setting within which Adam Smith accepted as the framework of his ideas.

The empirical reality that each of us differs from others — that, for example, Tyler Cowen is much, much smarter than me; that Bill Gates is much richer than me; that Paul Krugman’s audience is bigger than mine; that Brad Pitt is better-looking than me; and on and on — does not render the presumption of equality invalid or unimportant.  My values are still mine; I am as entitled to them as you are to yours.  Moreover, I am as capable of choosing my values as, say, Krugman is capable of choosing his — and I am much more capable of choosing my values than Krugman is of choosing my values.  There’s no individualism, no liberalism, if each of our values is smothered and squelched by some set of pretend transcendent values forced on us by our ‘betters.’


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