… is from page 277 of my late colleague Jim Buchanan ‘s 1985 article “Constitutional Democracy, Individual Liberty, and Political Equality” as it is reprinted in Moral Science and Moral Order , Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan:
Those persons who object to the explicit introduction of or an extension of constitutional limits over the range and scope of political activity often, at the same time, strongly support constitutional guarantees of democratic decision-making procedures, as such. In the literal sense, therefore, these persons are also “constitutionalists,” and they would acknowledge the necessity of affixing the word “constitutional” to “democracy.” Without effective guarantees of electoral processes, a majority coalition, once in office, could, of course, simply abolish all elections and establish itself in permanent authority. In this context, those persons who most strongly oppose constitutional constraints on the activities of governments accept the necessity of constitutional constraints on the procedures of politics. There are few who claims to adhere to democratic values, however these values may be described, who are not, at the same time, constitutionalists of one sort or another. There is then no inherent or internal inconsistency in the position that urges the imposition of constraints on the range of activities open to political authority. Just as a majority coalition may, unless it is restricted, abolish electoral feedbacks that insure the potential for rotation in office, so may any effectively operating political coalition seek to extend its authority beyond any plausibly acceptable boundaries described by the publicness notion.
DBx: One of the most irritating facts about Nancy MacLean’s fabulist book, Democracy in Chains – apart from her countless careless factual errors, flights of illogical ‘reasoning,’ and tales fabricated out of thin air – is her palpable ignorance of political theory. She isn’t ignorant only of public-choice scholarship. She seems to be ignorant of political theory generally. Nowhere does she give evidence of seriously appreciating the manifold difficulties that scholars throughout the ages, and of diverse ideological stripes, have identified with collective decision-making procedures. For her, majority-rule democracy is a rather simple and straightforward institution that is unquestionably superior to all alternatives at ensuring that government acts in ways that promote the true public interest. (In his review of MacLean’s book, Mike Munger marveled that MacLean herself champions, with apparent sincerity, a straw-man version of majoritarian democracy .) Any one who wishes to put majority-rule democracy “in chains” is, therefore in MacLean’s opinion, either a fool or a villain. (On her telling, Jim Buchanan was a villain.)
So I wonder what MacLean would say to those who argue for a constitutional rule that prevents today’s winning majority coalition from eliminating democratic elections going forward? Would she accuse those who support such a rule as being enemies of the People – enemies who would deny the majority the right to do as it pleases? I suspect not. That is, I suspect that even the naive MacLean would see the wisdom in “chaining” today’s majority from changing the voting rules going forward in ways that protect that majority from being outvoted in the future.
Yet if so – that is, if MacLean would support this constitutional restriction on the power of the current majority – then she obviously does not trust the majority always to do what’s best for the general public. But once the majority is reckoned not to be 100-percent trustworthy, surely it’s prudent at least to consider the possibility that constitutional restrictions on the power of the majority (beyond those that restrict its ability to abolish majority rule itself) might yield positive benefits for society at large. If today’s majority is not to be trusted without constraint to use its power wisely for the public interest, then there is no good reason to interpret calls for constitutional limitations on the scope and power of political majorities as evidence that those who make such calls are foolish or villainous – or anti-democratic – enemies of ‘the People.’