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Was Buchanan’s and Tullock’s Enterprise “Like” Calhoun’s?

On page 81 of Democracy in Chains Nancy MacLean describes John C. Calhoun’s “case for minority veto power” – that is, Calhoun’s proposal that no legislation be enacted unless it receives the approval of “the concurrent majority” – as being “like that which Buchanan and Tullock were advocating” in The Calculus of Consent.  She’s mistaken.  Significant differences distinguish Buchanan’s and Tullock’s proposal from Calhoun’s proposal of a concurrent majority.

The most important of these distinctions is the one mentioned in my correction of Michael Chwe’s misunderstanding of Buchanan’s proposed unanimity rule – namely, for Buchanan and Tullock, the only rules which require unanimous consent are constitutional rules, including the rules that determine the procedures and requirements for enacting legislation.  Buchanan and Tullock argued that, when choosing constitutional rules, individuals would recognize that a rule of unanimity for the enactment of ordinary legislation would be too costly.  At the constitutional stage of decision-making, therefore, individuals unanimously agree to have some rule of less-than-unanimity – for example, majority rule – for the enactment of legislation.  More precisely, Buchanan and Tullock argued that, at the constitutional stage, individuals might choose different rules for the enactment of different kinds of legislation.  For example, individuals might choose to allow tax rates to be changed with the approval of a simple majority, while proposals to declare war must receive the approval of two-thirds of the citizens’ representatives.  The relevant point here is that the rule of unanimity for Buchanan and Tullock – unlike for Calhoun – applies only to the making of constitutional rules and not to the enactment of legislation.

Another important difference between Buchanan’s and Tullock’s proposal and Calhoun’s is that, for Buchanan and Tullock, the unanimous approval that is required is that of individuals; for Calhoun, the unanimous approval that is required is that of groups.  Calhoun thought of society as being naturally comprised of different “interests” – for example., planters, merchants, and lawyers.  As explained by Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen in their 1992 paper on the extent to which Calhoun anticipated public choice,

Calhoun’s thought on the question of optimal consent is clearly related to pluralist or corporatist “group theory.”  In particular, Calhoun’s concurrent majority applies to interest groups and not individuals [p. 666]….  Unlike Buchanan, Calhoun does not subscribe to normative individualism of contractarianism.  The social state is thought of as God-given and methodologically prior to civilized man [p. 671].

Each proposed piece of legislation must, under Calhoun’s system, win majority approval from each of the different interests – thus the term concurrent majority.

Unlike Calhoun, no public-choice scholar accepts the idea that among the elemental components of society are different “interests.”  Instead, for public-choice scholars, the elemental components of society are individuals.  It’s true that public-choice analysis predicts that individuals will often form themselves into interest groups, but such groups are the product of the interplay of the costs and the expected benefits to individuals of so organizing.  Unlike for Calhoun’s “interests,” the interest groups identified by public choice are not elemental entities each of which deserves, by right, a say in – and much less a veto power over – the enactment of legislation.  (Indeed, the normative attitude of public-choice scholars toward interest groups is decidedly negative, for such groups typically succeed in using state power to secure benefits for themselves at a greater cost to society at large.)

In short, for Calhoun, interest groups are simply assumed to exist, and to exist in such numbers that the interests of all individuals in the polity are thereby represented by this collection of groups.  In stark contrast, for public choice, interest groups arise if and only to the extent that the costs to individuals of forming into a group are exceeded by the benefits that each individual expects to receive by joining the group.  For Calhoun, the interplay of interests under a system of concurrent-majority rule ensures good government.  For public-choice scholars, the political activity of interest groups is among the most important forces that incite government to behave badly.


In summary, for Buchanan (and for Buchanan and Tullock) the rule of unanimity was to govern only the enactment of constitutional rules and not the enactment of legislation.  This fact alone renders false MacLean’s assertion that Buchanan’s and Tullock’s proposal is “like” that of Calhoun’s.  When other aspects of Buchanan’s and Tullock’s analysis are considered – such as their belief that each individual should have an equal say in the choosing of constitutional rules – the similarity between Buchanan’s analysis and that of Calhoun shrinks even further.  Here, again, are Tabarrok and Cowen:

Buchanan has chosen individual preferences as the source of justification for his proposed unanimity rule.  For Buchanan, informed consent is the ultimate source of value.  The purpose of a political constitution is to allow men to achieve their desired ends.  There are no values higher than those given by preferences, and the state is visualized as a hypothetical social compact among autonomous, contracting individuals [p. 672].

None of the above denies that Calhoun (like several other thinkers) anticipated some aspects of public choice.  But the normative, methodological, and practical differences between Calhoun, on one hand, and Buchanan, Tullock, and other public-choice scholars, on the other, is so huge that for MacLean to describe Buchanan’s and Tullock’s project as being “like” that of Calhoun’s – and for her to conclude that Calhoun is the “intellectual lodestar” of public-choice scholars – is absurd.  If MacLean sincerely believes her charge, then she either has not read carefully Calhoun or public choice (or both), or she is unable to grasp not just the (many) subtleties in these works but also their main thrusts.  (Indeed, MacLean admits to having read the Tabarrok-Cowen article quoted above; but, obviously, she did not read it carefully enough to grasp its full message.)  Either way, MacLean had no business writing a book about these matters.