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An Accurate Portrait of Jim Buchanan’s Ideas

On his Facebook page – and in light of the monumental distortions that run throughout Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains – Pål Foss helps to set the record straight:


James M. Buchanan’s political economy should be read as part of a big European tradition in political philosophy following Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and John Sturt Mill (On Liberty ) on the nature of democracy who feared that democracy may threaten liberty. Mill and Tocqueville feared the democratic revolution and particularly the modern passion for equality may threaten liberty. Tocqueville asks what becomes of people when they are overcome by this passion? The growth of state power and the homogenization of state power society as results of homogenizing of society as two consequences of equalizing conditions. The growth of government inspired many of Buchanan’s earlier writings. What Mill, Tocqueville and James Buchanan teaches us is that to love democracy well, we must love it moderately. Buchanan knew Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant, he complained abouit not learning much from Montesquieu. These insights are important for those who struggle to establish democracy we need to deal with the fragile, complicated, and often contradictory nature of democracy. To present a critical theory of democracy, as public choice theory does is very different from attacking democracy.

A lot of debate in political philosophy in many countries is on the demands that morals make on politics from outside of politics. Tocqueville and Buchanan do in different ways begin with the modern regime par excellence – democracy. Democracy is everywhere and it is important to discuss its strengths and its weaknesses. They discuss, not the abuse of power by Kings and dictators, but how democracy may be abused.

Tocqueville observed the equality of modern conditions in modern society. Equality of conditions proceeds from democracy as a political regime.

All three thinkers feared the tyranny of the majority, and discuss this in their differing ways. It is useful to read Buchanan’s concern with the problems of democracy into a broad tradition of European authors. Isaiah Berlin (positive and negative liberty, as it relates to liberty and democracy), Raymond Aron (political sociology of modernity), Ralf Dahrendorf (current and classical contradictions of democracy the ‘New Social Conflict 2nd edn’) , FA Hayek (democracy should be constitutionally limited for epistemological reasons and in order to protect vulnerable minorities CL & LL&L), Josef Schumpeter, (the incentives of democratic man) , Pierre Manent (philosophy and the nature of democracy) and is to name just a few). They discuss political philosophy and sociology, to James Buchanan’s work see this as a sustained attack on democracy seems false, unfair and misleading.

Nancy Macleans book seems to suffer from several shortcomings, two of the worst being poor understanding of Buchanan’s and the public choice theory’s theoretical basis in economics and willful distortion of what he says and quoting him out of context.