Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on May 3, 2020

in Budget Issues, Debt and Deficits, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 309 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan’s 1980 paper “Procedural and Quantitative Constitutional Constraints on Fiscal Authority,” as this paper is reprinted in Choice, Contract, and Constitutions (2001), which is volume 16 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan (original emphasis):

The need for additional fiscal restraints did not become apparent until the empirical-historical record began to suggest that the nonfiscal constraints had failed. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought, as expressed by scholar and citizen alike, embodied a blind faith that, somehow, the competitive pressures of electoral politics made explicit consideration of further constitutional constraints unnecessary. That is to say, the prevailing mythology about politics was that so long as politicians and political parties were required to submit their record to the voters periodically, the overall results could not really be out of bounds….

The very notion of what I have elsewhere called the “constitutional attitude” – the vision of the Founding Fathers of a society in which government, too, would be kept strictly within constitutional limits – was lost to the consciousness of the dominant American political mind.

DBx: Every society has notions that are accepted as indisputably true without any need for investigation. Some of these notions are beneficial – that is, these contribute to the flourishing of individuals and families within society. Other of these notions are harmful, while others are neither harmful nor beneficial. But the lower is the portion of beneficial notions to harmful ones, the greater is the danger to society.

One harmful notion that has long been around, but which seems to be gaining ever-more adherents, is that there is something meaningfully called “the will of the People,” that this “will” is revealed by majority-rule outcomes (assuming that elections are conducted according to rules deemed ‘fair’), and that nothing should prevent the pursuit of this “will’s” current whims.

Rational-choice theory generally, and especially its Virginia School version of public-choice scholarship and research, have scientifically shown that the first two prongs of this harmful notion are fallacies. There is no “will of the people” any more than there is a “will of the moon” or a “will of a box of Froot Loops.” Each person in a group, however that group is defined, has a will. And each person’s will is obviously influenced by his or her interactions with others persons in the group. But the group itself, because it isn’t a sentient creature, has no will.

In addition, outcomes of majority-rule elections are unavoidably influenced by arbitrary circumstances that every devotee of classic, romantic democratic principles must agree ought to play no role in affecting elections’ outcomes. I write here not of circumstances such as whether election day is cold and rainy rather than warm and sunny (although circumstances such as these clearly influence electoral outcomes). Instead, I write of more foundational features of elections that most people seldom pause to ponder. How are the candidates or options for an election chosen? Who or what, when more than two options are on the ballot, decides on the rules for determining how a winner will eventually be singled-out? If it’s a majority-rule election, the plurality winner cannot be declared the election winner, so how to arrive at a final outcome in which the winner is the option that has secured a majority of votes? What are the voting rules?

And can today’s majority vote to enshrine itself as the ruler forever by preventing future elections and changes in who holds power? Surely a negative answer to this question implies that the majority is not all-wise, all-knowing, and unquestionably trustworthy. Hence, a negative answer to this question implies that today’s majority ought not be trusted with powers unlimited. But if this reality be understood, isn’t it likely that there are other actions that today’s majority should be prevented from performing?

Recognizing that today’s majority should not be entitled to permanently enshrine itself is sufficient to prove that the third prong of this fallacy – namely, that nothing should prevent the full pursuit of the “will” of today’s majority – is a very bad idea indeed.


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