Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on May 1, 2020

in Complexity & Emergence, Philosophy of Freedom, The Economy, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 6 of the original edition of the late Nobel-laureate economist James M. Buchanan’s 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty (original emphasis):

That is “good” which “tends to emerge” from the free choices of the individuals who are involved. It is impossible for an external observer to lay down criteria for “goodness” independently of the process through which results or outcomes are attained. The evaluation is applied to the means of attaining outcomes, not to outcomes as such.

DBx: This insight, which isn’t original to Buchanan but which plays a central role in his work, is profoundly important. In any society and economy in which individuals are not treated as conscripts in a great army for achieving the preferred ends of the army’s leaders, no one chooses the system-wide results that emerge from the billions upon billions of choices and actions of the individuals in that society and economy. Whatever order is observed is emergent – spontaneous – unplanned.

This overall order might please some and displease others. Nearly every person is able to find in it some features that he or she would prefer be different. But this order is not an intended result. And so to evaluate it as if it is an intended result is a category error. (This error, alas, is very commonly committed, and committed by people all across political, ideological, and intellectual spectra.)

It is an error to evaluate social and economic outcomes independently of the processes that produce them. All than can be sensibly evaluated ethically – and that should be so evaluated – are the processes out of which the outcomes emerge. For example, the ‘distribution’ of income, standing alone, is ethically meaningless. What is not ethically meaningless is the process out of which that ‘distribution’ of income emerges. Is the process fair? To what degree does the process satisfy some ethical criteria?

Reasonable people can and often do disagree over which criteria are best to use to evaluate social and economic processes. But no reasonable person can disagree that evaluations of social and political ‘outcomes’ are largely meaningless. What is not meaningless – and what is indeed vital – is evaluation of social and economic processes – which, as a practical matter, means evaluation of rules.


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