Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on January 4, 2019

in Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 153 of my late colleague Jim Buchanan‘s important 1986 paper “The Potential for Tyranny in Politics as Science” (reprinted in Moral Science and Moral Order [2001], Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan):

There is a potential for tyranny if the enterprise of politics is interpreted as being analogous to that of science.

DBx: Society or the nation is often conceived of – spoken of – anthropomorphically, as if it is akin to a flesh-and-blood human being, only larger and more important than any of the puny individuals the collection of whom constitute it. This aggregate creature is conceived of – spoken of – as if it has a will (“the will of The People”) and what economists call a “preference function” that can be “satisfied.” And, hence, this aggregate creature is conceived of – spoken of – as if it can and ought to be engineered, much as each of us ‘engineer’ – plan – our lives or our households, however imperfectly, to satisfy our preferences.

This aggregate creature is conceived of – spoken of – as if there are “solutions” to whatever problems or challenges that it faces. Mainstream economists understand that each and every choice that this aggregate creature makes – or that is made for it by those who govern it – involves a sacrifice, a trade-off, and, thus, a cost. As is true for Bill your neighbor and Bonnie your niece, nothing is free. Nevertheless, also as is true for Bill your neighbor and Bonnie your niece (or so mainstream economists insist) there is in principle one ‘correct’ array of choices to be made – namely, those that maximize the utility of the creature. (Most non-economists very often deny, usually only implicitly, that every choice made for the aggregate creature involves a cost.)

With the problem of governance – of politics – conceived of as being that of discovering and implementing the “correct” array of choices for the aggregate creature, governance – politics – is conceived of as being a scientific endeavor. It’s the search for an objective truth. As is the case in all genuinely scientific endeavors, different searchers-for-truth can sincerely disagree amongst themselves about their findings and interpretations and conclusions. But all searchers-for-truth agree that there is indeed one correct “solution” the discovery of which is the goal of all searchers-for-truth.

Once there is sufficient agreement among the governors of this aggregate creature on what is the best array of choices for it, any one who resists the carrying out of the making of this array of choices is naturally seen not only as an individual who irrationally rejects the scientific method but also, and worse, as someone who is an enemy of the aggregate creature – that is, an enemy of The People. Such an individual is wrong objectively. His or her resistance is objectively a danger to the welfare of the aggregate creature. He or she must be subdued, silenced, re-educated, or if the welfare of the aggregate creature so requires, liquidated.


It is perhaps the single greatest contribution of the Austrian school of economics and of Buchanan’s Virginia School of political economy to explain the necessity and scientific value of rejecting the anthropomorphization of collections of individuals – of society, of the nation, of the market, of “The People.” Once rejected, the inherent illogic and unworkability of schemes such as socialism are better able to be detected and revealed. Additionally, no one is taken seriously who poses as a secular savior of society. Society is seen for what it really is – an emergent and highly complex order, defying attempts to engineer it – rather than as a giant android that must be engineered.


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