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More Misunderstanding of James Buchanan’s Work

Here’s a letter that I sent several days ago to the Washington Post:

In “The beliefs of economist James Buchanan conflict with basic democratic norms. Here’s why” (July 25) Michael Chwe is completely mistaken when he writes that Buchanan wanted to “make the passing of new laws as difficult as possible, requiring unanimous consent.”  Buchanan argued for unanimous consent only to constitutional rules; he emphatically did not argue for unanimous consent to legislation enacted under any existing constitution.  Indeed, the very point of the most famous chapter (#6) of his most famous book, The Calculus of Consent (co-authored with Gordon Tullock), is to explain why unanimous consent to ordinary legislation is an unworkable and, hence, unacceptable idea.

Central to Jim Buchanan’s life’s work was the distinction between choosing constitutional rules and choosing legislation and regulation within constitutional rules.  It’s unfortunate that Prof. Chwe misses this key distinction and, in the process, portrays Buchanan in an exceedingly misleading light.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030