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Quotation of the Day…

… is from pages 361-362 of the late Nobel-laureate economist James Buchanan’s 1984 essay “Sources of Opposition to Constitutional Reform,” as this essay is reprinted in Choice, Contract, and Constitutions (2001), which is volume 16 of The Collected works of James M. Buchanan (link added):

One apparent source of an anticonstitutionalist mindset arises from a naive commitment to democracy, without any underlying examination of what this term means.  Implicitly, democracy as a political, governmental form of decision making is equated with majoritarianism, with majority voting rules being placed in a central and critical institutional role.  When carefully analyzed, however, this majoritarian stance is peculiar with respect to its implied constitutional foundations.  The will of the majority is to be paramount, and limits on the exercise of this will are deemed to violate territory that is sacrosanct.  At the same time, strict constitutional protection is presumably required for those institutional elements that define the operation of majority voting rules themselves.  Simple majorities are not allowed to act so as to abolish majoritarian processes of decision making; they are not allowed to prohibit new elections at periodic intervals with any view toward freezing permanently the power position of a specific coalition.

Members of majority coalitions will, quite naturally, be inclined to maintain the powers they have achieved.  To prevent majoritarian abolition of majoritarian processes, constitutional guarantees presumably become legitimate….

What majority is to count?  The generalized majoritarian response to this question seems highly ambiguous.  There is no clearly defined relationship between majoritarianism and representation.  If all adults are franchised, but plebiscitary methods of attaining majority resolution of all issues are not feasible, how are persons to be represented in a legislative assembly?  There is no natural bridge between majority voting under universal franchise, as an abstract ideal, and majority voting in a specifically defined legislative assembly.  It is relatively easy to show with the simplest of analytical models that the majority will of the legislature may not be consistent with the majority will of the electorate under a wide variety of circumstances.

Even if the problem of effective representation is neglected, there remains the familiar difficulty that arises because of possible inconsistency in majority decisions.  In the presence of voting cycles, there is no majority will, which then prompts the question: When should voting stop [over any particular set of options]?

DBx: Jim Buchanan here summarizes just a few of the complexities that prevent any simple majority-rule voting process from succeeding in discovering and implementing ‘the will of the people’ – or even ‘the will of the majority of voters.’  These complexities are well-known to even casual students of political science.  Yet these complexities appear to be beyond the grasp of the likes of Nancy MacLean.  She interprets explorations by Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and other public-choice scholars into the practical as well as the conceptual difficulties with majoritarianism – and these scholars’ suggestions of constitutional rules to minimize the negative consequences of these difficulties – as an assault on democracy.  In fact, Buchanan, as he said repeatedly, saw his work as part of an enterprise to reinforce democracy so that it, over time, performs as well as it can possibly perform at ensuring that the rules under which members of a polity are governed are rules that each of them, on equal terms, chose.  One does not have to agree with Buchanan’s constitutional suggestions (I myself am on record as disagreeing with Jim on several particular points here) in order to understand that his effort was one of improving and promoting democratic decision-making rather than, as Nancy MacLean ignorantly believes, of undermining it.

MacLean’s is, at best, a childish understanding of the deep and complex issues that consumed most of the intellectual efforts of Buchanan and other public-choice scholars.  Her sitting in judgment of the merits of Buchanan’s scholarship is as laughable as it would be were a backwoods faith healer to sit in judgment of the life’s work of Dr. Micheal DeBakey.

It is no offense to be ignorant of public-choice scholarship.  Each of us is ignorant of almost everything.  But it is an offense to judge a scholar’s work – and then, based on that judgment, to accuse that scholar not only of error but of evil-doing – without bothering to learn even the most elementary features of that scholar’s work.  Nancy MacLean is guilty of this offense, and those who sing her praises are accomplices to her reckless wrongdoing.