My 2006 Review of James Buchanan’s Final Book

by Don Boudreaux on May 24, 2018

in Archived writings, Books, Virginia Political Economy

In July 2006 I reviewed my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan’s 2005 collection, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative. My review is below the fold.

The picture on the dust jacket of this latest book by my Nobel prize-winning colleague James Buchanan has nothing to do with the book’s title or its contents. The dust-jacket shows a photographer’s cloth backdrop, with absolutely nothing in the foreground or background. It’s as if the cover announces “There’s nothing here.”

But oh how misleading that message is! As with all that Buchanan writes, this short book is a deep well of insights, creative reflections, and wisdom. In particular, this book is a collection of 12 essays, each written within the past decade – too recently to be included in the 20 volume Collected Works of James M. Buchanan published by Liberty Press.

Although now in his mid-80s, Buchanan’s mind and pen are as agile as ever, showing no signs of crustiness or an urge to rest on his (many) laurels. Indeed, despite revisiting a theme that has engaged him for at least three decades, Buchanan’s message is fresh.

The theme is simultaneously an ovation for, and a dissent from, F.A. Hayek’s effort to ground classical liberalism in the theory of spontaneous order – that is, Hayek’s effort to show that the case for individual freedom depends critically upon accepting the undesigned, unintended results of human action. Markets, law, even politics evolve over time in ways that incorporate what conservatives call “the wisdom of the ages.” Wholesale efforts to redesign society based on intellectual fancies discard this wisdom and replace it with the inevitably puny and deficient academic models of social engineers. The 20th-century’s awful experiment with socialism stands as a premier example of this intellectual arrogance, what Hayek called “the fatal conceit.”

Hayek’s struggle to expose the errors of social engineering, however, was often mistaken as an apology for conservatism. This mistake so disturbed Hayek that he concluded his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty with a chapter entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” It was a difficult case to make, because Hayek did indeed counsel deference to evolved social institutions even if the rational mind can find no good reason for their existence. The reader of Buchanan’s book will learn why Buchanan believes that Hayek went overboard in counseling such deference.

The title of Buchanan’s book obviously is inspired by Hayek. And like Hayek – but more clearly than Hayek – Buchanan puts his finger on the chief distinction between conservatives and real, or classical, liberals: only liberals are truly dedicated to the rule of law.

At first this claim sounds odd, given that we today think of conservatives as “law and order” types. But Buchanan and Hayek don’t mean by law simply the dictates promulgated by legislatures and regulators. Instead they mean the whole gamut of rules that constrain human behavior, whether or not these are formally promulgated and enforced by government. The true liberal recognizes that law, like products and prices in markets, often evolves unintended from the everyday actions of ordinary people. And the true liberal is unyielding in his insistence that everyone be bound by such laws. Nothing – not social status, skin color, religion, job title, amount of education; nothing – excuses anyone from the law.

Buchanan describes the debate as between followers of Plato and followers of Adam Smith:

Plato had no misgivings about classifying human beings along a hierarchy of superiority. To Plato, some persons are natural slaves; others are natural masters. For Adam Smith, persons are natural equals, and one of his familiar references is to the absence of basic differences between the philosopher and the street porter. [p. 4]

Plato is the conservative (or modern “liberal”); Adam Smith is the true liberal. Plato and his followers naturally believe that society’s best and the brightest should have great lee-way in directing the lives of the masses. Adam Smith and his followers, while recognizing that individuals differ from one another along many dimensions, believe that we are all equal in our humanity, with none of our differences justifying the rule of some of us over others of us. When this basic equality of humans is accepted, respect for a strict rule of law follows as a matter of course.

And here, on this point, we can see clearly the true liberal’s distinction not only from conservatives but also from modern “liberals.” The modern “liberal” fancies himself to be enlightened and caring because he seeks to use government to improve the lives of others even when this involves forcing others to act differently than they freely choose to act. Although the true conservative’s motives for constraining others’ actions might (or might not!) differ from those of the modern “liberal,” at root both conservatives and modern “liberals” disdain and distrust ordinary men and women. True liberals do not.

One result is that true liberals willingly allow peaceful adults do whatever they please. This willingness grows not from the liberal’s lack of concern for his fellow man, but from his respect for his fellow man – from the true-liberal’s mature recognition that his fellow man is, like himself, an adult with his own unique history, needs, and dreams. And when we treat others as adults, we accord them not only the freedom to pursue whatever peaceful paths they choose, but we also recognize them to be responsible.

The responsible person, of course, neither needs nor seeks the coddling and constraints imposed by the modern welfare-and-nanny state. But because the modern “liberal” believes so ardently that ordinary people must be coddled and constrained if they are to lead decent lives, the conservative roots of the modern “liberal” are exposed: the good and the wise must control the masses.

Variations on this theme of Plato versus Smith run throughout Buchanan’s book. Cataloging these themes and their resulting insights here is impossible; they are too numerous and rich for detailed summary – except to say that Buchanan, following Hayek’s lead if not his every step, carefully marks out the intellectual territory that the true liberal must defend, not only from overt conservatives but from the camouflaged conservatives who today are called “liberals.”

I recommend that you buy – or, at a price of $75, borrow – a copy of this book and savor some of the very best economics scholarship ever penned.


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