Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 1, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 49 of the original edition of my late Nobel-laureate colleague James M. Buchanan‘s 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty:

An additional basis for constitutional constraints on collective action is provided when it is recognized that, if there are no constraints, individuals have a stronger incentive to invest in attempts to secure control over collective decisions.  Control over the collective decision-making apparatus becomes the instrument for securing the winnings of a zero-sum component of the game of politics.  And, for the community in total, all resources invested in gaining this control are wasted.

DBx: Buchanan here refers to rent-seeking: a person’s privately enriching but socially impoverishing use of time and effort to transfer to himself existing resources or the power to conduct such transfers.  Only someone with astonishing naiveté about democratic politics – someone, such as Nancy MacLean, with a schoolgirl’s confidence in the justice and efficacy of all simple majoritarian outcomes – accuses Buchanan and others who point out the reality of rent-seeking as really offering false excuses to prevent ‘the People’ from gaining, through democratic processes, that which is, or ought to be, rightfully theirs.

The Limits of Liberty isn’t among my favorites of Buchanan’s works.  (An on-line version is available free here.)  Jim’s attempt there to explain the alleged superiority of social order grounded upon constitutional rules rationally crafted and unanimously agreed to by the individuals in the polity is, to me, unpersuasive.  I remain, on this front, far more a Hayekian than a Buchananite.  But The Limits of Liberty nevertheless is not at all as it is portrayed in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

The Limits of Liberty is a work in political philosophy.  On page 147 of her book MacLean acknowledges this fact, but she does not interpret or portray the book as such.  She refuses to interpret The Limits of Liberty as a plain reading of this book makes clear it should be interpreted – namely, as the result of a social-contract theorist’s struggle to gain insight into how individuals in a polity, each with an equal say in proposing and agreeing upon constitutional rules, might in fact unanimously agree upon constitutional rules of governance.  (Note that the unanimity requirement gives even the poorest member of the polity the right to veto any proposed constitutional rule.)  MacLean instead offers her readers an absurd description of the book’s main message:

He was outlining a world in which the chronic domination of the wealthiest and most powerful over all others appeared the ultimate desideratum, a state of affairs to be enabled by his understanding of the ideal constitution [p. 151].

Nothing – absolutely nothing – in The Limits of Liberty (or in any other of Buchanan’s writings) supports this interpretation.  Such an interpretation is completely fabricated.  In fact, the message of The Limits of Liberty is precisely the opposite of the one conveyed here by MacLean.

To be fair to MacLean, she might have inferred this interpretation from Warren Samuels’s bizarre 1976 review of it in the Journal of Economic Issues – a review that MacLean cites favorably.  In that review Samuels inexplicably describes the message of The Limits of Liberty as “antidemocratic.”  (It is “antidemocratic” only if “democratic” is interpreted to mean only a political system in which any majority, however temporary, may do whatever it ‘chooses’ to do without restraint.)  MacLean also here cites as a source S.M. Amadae’s 2016 book, Prisoners of Reason – a book that I’ve not read but, judging from MacLean’s use of it, I suspect is stuffed with all manner of misunderstanding of public choice.*  But if MacLean herself has read The Limits of Liberty – and I presume that, as an historian who wrote a book about Buchanan, she has done so – it’s clear that (1) she has not read it carefully, or (2) she has not the intellectual capacity to understand it, or (3) she intentionally misrepresents it.

A reader of The Limits of Liberty might fairly disagree with Buchanan (as I do) that social-contracting as he describes it is likely to result in sound constitutional rules.  But I remain completely at a loss to understand how anyone who reads this book can accuse Buchanan of having as “the ultimate desideratum” a “world in which … the wealthiest and most powerful” exercise “chronic domination over all others.”  (Even Warren Samuels – who believed that such domination by oligarchs would be the result in any polity governed by Buchanan’s social-contractarianism – granted that Buchanan might not himself desire such an outcome.  That is, unlike MacLean, Samuels accused Buchanan of profound intellectual error and not of evil intent.)

* It is dangerous business for me to judge the contents of Amadae’s book from MacLean’s use of it.  The reason is that if MacLean has proven anything in Democracy in Chains it’s that nothing that she writes about the contents of a scholar’s message – or even of the actual text of that message – is to be trusted.


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