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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 44 of my colleague Richard Wagner’s excellent 2017 intellectual biography of Jim Buchanan, James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy:

To be sure, theorists of public finance readily embraced fictions, mostly ones that sounded pleasant. A common fiction was to treat the state as a benevolent despot that used its budget to maximize social welfare. A wish or a hope was substituted for an explanation of the operation of actual political processes.

DBx: As Dick explains, among Jim Buchanan‘s key – and earliest – contributions was to expose the implicit normative bias of English-language theorists of public finance. Buchanan sought understanding of actual taxing and spending decisions, and he correctly insisted that such an understanding is impossible if theorists begin by assuming that government officials are apolitical benevolent despots who somehow know how best to promote the good of the people.

There’s an irony here. By seeking a scientific understanding of actual political processes and outcomes, Buchanan exposed and rejected the normative biases of public-finance theorists. And for this achievement, it is Buchanan who is accused by uninformed people of introducing normative bias into the study of actual political processes and outcomes. It is Buchanan rather than the likes of Joseph Stiglitz who is labelled the ideologue. How backwards.

Exposing and rejecting normative biases, and replacing these biases with unbiased analyses of the ways that actual politics works, is of course not evidence of ideological bias. But when Buchanan and other public-choice scholars make this move it is interpreted as such.

No one likes others who attempt to expose his or her god as being a fantasy. Buchanan attempted – with powerful analyses – to expose the benevolent-despot god so beloved by many others as being a fantasy. The true believers resist with mighty passion, portraying Buchanan as Satan himself.


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