AIER: James Buchanan’s Normative Vision Fifteen Years Later

This article from Art Carden at AIER delves into some political philosophy reflected in the writings of James Buchanan – James M. Buchanan’s Normative Vision Fifteen Years Later. What does it mean to be a conservative vs a classical liberal? What does it mean to be equal? What are the roles of economists and social scientists?

“It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” ~ Friedrich Hayek, “Why I am not a conservative”

Sixty years ago, Friedrich Hayek published The Constitution of Liberty. To it was appended a short postscript titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Fifteen years ago, James M. Buchanan published a short volume titled Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism. At just over one hundred pages, it might look like a quick read. The appearance is deceiving. Buchanan turned 86 in 2005, and Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative is a mature statement of how he thinks the world “should” be in light of a very long career wrestling with the most fundamental principles of social organization. It’s a compact statement from a serious thinker who wrote for the ages.

The book collects short essays published after his twenty-volume Collected Works appeared in 1999. This means there is some repetition, but this does not detract from his overall message. Throughout, it shines with the convictions of a man who took his own ideas seriously and, perhaps more importantly, took others’ ideas seriously.

Buchanan consistently rejects the idea that the economist’s role is to develop a social owner’s manual for those at the top of the moral, political, and economic hierarchy. It is, rather, to identify the principles facilitating cooperation among moral and political equals. Buchanan’s normative vision doesn’t flatter anyone with the notion that they are better than anyone else. To the extent he opposed noblesse oblige, it was on the grounds that no one is noblesse.

Buchanan frames the institutional question in terms of a disagreement between Plato on one hand and Adam Smith on the other. As he puts it on pp. 4-5 (emphasis added):

“We may personalize the discussion here, even if loosely, as the continuing debate between Plato on the one hand, and Adam Smith on the other. 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.

The issue is not one as to whether persons differ; the issue is whether or not persons differ in their potential capacities as participating members of a body politic. What could be the basis for any presumptive classification that would elevate some persons above others? By what criteria are the hierarchical classifications to be made? What transcendent values inform any such criteria? And, importantly, who is to establish the ordering?

The liberal faces no such questions as these, since he accepts more or less without conscious deliberation the Smithean presumption of natural equality. The conservative acknowledges the challenges posed by such questions, and I suggest that implicit acceptance of the hierarchical interpretation of human beings is a distinguishing feature of the stance described by this rubric. The conservative almost necessarily infers that persons who stand higher in the hierarchy should possess differentially higher authority in matters of governance. The natural fit is with aristocracy.”

He returns to these themes again and again. That people differ in tastes and talents is so obvious as to barely deserve mention. That they differ in tastes and talents does not, however, mean that some are fit to rule while others are fit only to obey. There is nothing in the nature of the philosopher that makes him fit to rule over the porter. “The Smithean presumption of natural equality” is an indispensable part of Buchanan’s vision.

Buchanan works at the level of fundamental ideas about social organization and begins, always and everywhere, with the presumption of equality. As he writes on pp. 105-106, “I remain disinterested in efforts to analyse social structures that presume a hierarchical classification among persons and groups. And this attitude persists despite the disturbing, and increasingly encountered, claims about biological evidence for differentiation.” As he puts it on p. 27, “…markets, as efficient generators of the values desired by participants, also fail if, prior to each transaction, persons must identify the trading partner by some discriminatory mark.”

The book is peppered with references and allusions to the “some animals are more equal than others” doctrine in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Buchanan has little use for the doctrine as he concerns himself throughout the book with the implications of the idea of equality among natural equals. Equality is characteristic of desirable social processes, not an outcome produced by those processes. He arrives at sometimes-severe conclusions: implicit in many benevolent and altruistic schemes is the notion of latent inequality and natural hierarchy in which the morally and intellectually enlightened–the philosopher-kings, or our betters–decide on our behalf and care for us the same way they might care for “dependent” animals (cf. pp. 8-9,50). To be a person, to Buchanan, is to be more than just another mouth to feed. It’s to be a responsible moral agent with all that entails.

The role of the status quo is one of the more interesting elements of Buchanan’s normative vision, and it’s where he parts ways from conservatives. The fact that it’s the status quo as such, he argues, does not have any special meaning, but the way people accept or at least acquiesce to it still might be informative: “Acceptance rather than continuing contestability offers evidence that should not be ignored” (p. 3). In a world where obvious injustice persists, this will leave many readers cold; however, this is one of the areas where Buchanan is “slippery,” as Michael Munger calls him. For institutional change to be sustainable, as Barry Weingast has argued in several places, the de jure distribution of power cannot deviate too much from the de facto distribution of power. This seems like a matter of prudence in holding one’s nose and accepting an unhappy trade-off rather than a question of abstract justice: in various places, Munger offers the example of Chile and notes that democratization would have been short-lived had the functionaries of Pinochet’s junta government been brought to “justice.” They likely would have responded with a military coup, and Chile would not be a liberal, democratic member of the OECD.

This notwithstanding Buchanan is at least a little “constructivist” in that he is optimistic about prospects for human improvement. He emphasizes two conditions for a well-functioning free society: autonomy (enough people have to want to be free) and reciprocity (enough people have to see others as rights-bearing, dignified moral equals). While he acknowledges that this is not the case and hasn’t typically been the case historically, he is nonetheless optimistic about people’s ability to “perfect” themselves, at least a little bit, by adopting and promulgating “puritan” ethics (see, for example, his 1994 book Ethics and Economic Progress and this paper).

One thing that comes out loud and clear in Buchanan’s work is that he does not see social science as a tool of social engineering insofar as statecraft, for Buchanan, is not a question of which levers to pull and which buttons to push in order to generate a specific outcome. Rather, statecraft asks how societies develop and enforce bodies of rules making it possible for moral, intellectual, and political equals to cooperate advantageously without one person or group of persons being subservient to the “more equal” animals a little higher in the social hierarchy. We are lost, Buchanan thinks, when a critical mass of people see the state as a way to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

As befits a volume that borrows the title of Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Buchanan devotes a lot of space to commentary on Hayek and his vision. He notes in applying his own work on moral communities and moral orders that “…the Hayekian moral order does contain important communitarian elements, even if these are different from those that are familiarly stressed” (p. 72). We are individuals in that, as Buchanan argues elsewhere, the individual is the fundamental and irreducible unit of consciousness. As individuals, however, we live in and strive for community. This means, therefore, that there are ethical prerequisites for cooperation and coordination. He emphasizes autonomy and reciprocity. He doesn’t seem to think Hayek appreciates these the way he should.

Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative lays out a subtle, complex, and principled vision for a functioning society of equals. Autonomy and reciprocity, he argues, are necessary for peace, order, and prosperity, but at the same time he doesn’t see it as his role to deconstruct society and rebuild it along these lines. Buchanan is critical of radicals who would force others to be free, or who would seek liberal ends by illiberal means. On one hand, Buchanan has a very clear social idea in mind. On the other hand, he isn’t willing to burn it all down and try to replace it with a constructed order he finds appealing. His contractarianism is too radical for that. As he writes (p. 20), “The classical liberal violates his own principles if he thinks of himself as philosopher-king.” It’s certainly not the role Buchanan sought for himself.

AIER: So You Want to Overthrow the State – Ten Questions for Aspiring Revolutionaries

Art Carden, writing for the American Institute for Economic Research, has some questions for those interested in overthrowing the government. These apply whatever your political bent, not just right or left. So You Want to Overthrow the State: Ten Questions for Aspiring Revolutionaries

A professor at Washington and Lee University is offering a writing seminar called “How to Overthrow the State,” which “place(s) each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society.” Students are charged with writing their own revolutionary manifesto in light of readings from revolutionaries like Che Guevara. The right-wing outrage machine, as you can imagine, is feasting on it and offering it as an example of the radical takeover of higher education.

I’m intrigued by the class because I tend toward free-market anarchism myself and think that states are neither necessary nor sufficient for prosperity. There’s a burgeoning academic literature on this with books like Peter T. Leeson’s Anarchy Unbound exploring the theory and history of statelessness and AIER’s own Edward Stringham’s Private Governance looking at how institutions and organizations that protect people and property have emerged without coercion. There’s a lively and ongoing debate in these circles about whether or not one would push a button that would allow us to wake up tomorrow morning without governments. WLU’s course represents an excellent opportunity for students to take the revolutionaries’ arguments seriously, and if they do their due diligence, to think really hard about their shortcomings. I offer, therefore, ten questions for the young leaders of these revolutionary movements.

  1. Do I have the facts straight? Karl Marx said that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” I doubt very much that you will know which changes you need to make if you don’t have a very good idea about your starting point. In his book Factfulness and in his many excellent online presentations, the late Swedish Professor of International Health Hans Rosling identifies a lot of the ways things have gotten better, especially for the world’s poorest.

    Suppose, for example, that you encounter the name “Milton Friedman,” perhaps in connection with lamented “neoliberalism” and maybe in connection with human rights abuses perpetrated by the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman has been denounced as the “father of global misery,” and his reputation has taken another beating in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of his 1970 New York Times Magazine essay “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” which I suspect most people haven’t read past its title. But what happened during “The Age of Milton Friedman,” as the economist Andrei Shleifer asked in a 2009 article? Shleifer points out that “Between 1980 and 2005, as the world embraced free market policies, living standards rose sharply, while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined.” Things have never been so good, and they are getting better, especially for the world’s poor.

    In 2008, there was a bit of controversy over the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, which operates today as the Becker Friedman Institute (it is also named for Friedman’s fellow Chicago economist Gary Becker). In a blistering reply to a protest letter signed by a group of faculty members at the University of Chicago, the economist John Cochrane wrote, “If you start with the premise that the last 40 or so years, including the fall of communism, and the opening of China and India are ‘negative for much of the world’s population,’ you just don’t have any business being a social scientist. You don’t stand a chance of contributing something serious to the problems that we actually do face.” Nor, might I add, do you stand much of a chance of concocting a revolutionary program that will actually help the people you’re trying to lead.

  1. What makes me so sure I won’t replace the existing regime with something far worse? I might hesitate to push the aforementioned button because while the world we actually inhabit is far from perfect, it’s not at all clear that deleting the state overnight wouldn’t mean civilization’s wholesale and maybe even perpetual collapse. At the very least, I would want to think long and hard about it. The explicit mention of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara in the course description suggest that students will be approaching revolutionary ideas from the left. They should look at the results of populist revolutions in 20th century Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The blood of many millions starved and slaughtered in efforts to “forge a better society” cries out against socialism and communism, and macroeconomic populism in Latin America has been disastrous. As people have pointed out when told that “democratic socialists” aren’t trying to turn their countries into Venezuela, Venezuelans weren’t trying to turn their country into Venezuela when they embraced Hugo Chavez. I wonder why we should expect WLU’s aspiring revolutionaries to succeed where so many others have failed.
  2. Is my revolutionary program just a bunch of platitudes with which no decent person would disagree? In 2019, Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs published a useful volume titled Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, which you can download for $0 from IEA. He notes a tendency for socialists and neo-socialists to pitch their programs almost exclusively in terms of their hoped-for results rather than in terms of the operation of concrete social processes they hope to set in motion (on this I paraphrase my intellectual hero Thomas Sowell).

    Apply a test proposed a long time ago by the economist William Easterly: can you imagine anyone seriously objecting to what you’re saying? If not, then you probably aren’t saying anything substantive. Can you imagine someone saying “I hate the idea of the world’s poor having better food, clothing, shelter, and medical care” or “It would be a very bad thing if more people were literate?” If not, then it’s likely that your revolutionary program is a tissue of platitudes and empty promises. That’s not to say it won’t work politically–God knows, nothing sells better on election day than platitudes and empty promises–but you shouldn’t think you’re saying anything profound if all you’re saying is something obvious like “It would be nice if more people had access to clean, drinkable water.”

  1. Is my revolutionary manifesto really any better than the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan from this 1998 episode of South Park?

    In 2011, I wrote that a lot of policy proposals are “‘Underpants Gnomes’ Political Economy” after an episode of South Park in which the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan had three phases. Phase 1 was “collect underpants.” Phase 2 was a question mark. Phase 3 was “profit.” Most revolutionary proposals are like that. Phase 1 is “abolish private property” or “Build That Wall” or something. Phase 2 is a question mark. Phase 3 is “equality and superabundance” (from the left) or “America has been made Great Again” (from the Trumpist right). There are more than a few very important details missing.

  1. In other words, how is this actually going to work? I’m not a socialist not because of antipathy toward poor people or callous selfishness. I’m not a socialist because it doesn’t work in practice and doesn’t even work in theory. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, among many others, have argued that private property, market prices, and market-determined profits and losses are necessary for rational economic calculation. Marx summarized the program of the communists as “abolition of private property.” Mises countered that socialism, or abolition of private property, would mean “abolition of rational economy.” Marx (in)famously never spelled out exactly how socialism would work; he just knew it would. Vladimir Lenin didn’t appreciate the calculation problem and thought that managing an entire economy as if it was just one big factory didn’t require much more than arithmetic and receipts. He was grievously, tragically wrong. I think Mises and Hayek, ultimately, were the ones vindicated by theory and history.
  2. Does my argument for how it will work rely on people discarding self-interest, becoming a lot less horrible, and/or becoming a lot smarter? In a famous cartoon by Sidney Harris, two scientists are standing at a chalkboard. There are equations on the left and right sides of the board with “THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS” between them. One scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” If you’re relying on a change in human nature to make your program work, be prepared for a very long wait. Or be prepared to spill oceans of blood like those who tried to create a “New Socialist Man” in the twentieth century. The socialists and communists wanted to run the economy as if it were one big factory. For the most part, they have also wanted to run the rest of society as if it were one big family. This brings us to a problem that vexed Friedrich Hayek his whole career. The rules, norms, traditions, and other practices that make families or very small communities work well don’t scale. Similarly, if you tried to run your life with family and friends according to a “market logic” in which you try to do everything via literal price-mediated exchanges–charging your kids to rent the TV when they want to watch a movie, for example–it’s probably going to backfire spectacularly. You can’t run your family as if it’s the Chicago Board of Trade. You also can’t run a society of millions of people as if it’s one big happy family.
  3. How has it worked the other times it has been tried? Are you considering “land reform,” whether land expropriation and redistribution, or straight up collectivization? Satellite images of the effects of land reform in Zimbabwe should make you think twice.

    Years before the Russian Revolution, Eugene Richter predicted with eerie prescience what would happen in a socialist society in his short book Pictures of the Socialistic Future (which you can download for $0 here). Bryan Caplan, who wrote the foreword for that edition of Pictures and who put together the online “Museum of Communism,” points out the distressing regularity with which communists go from “bleeding heart” to “mailed fist.” It doesn’t take long for communist regimes to go from establishing a workers’ paradise to shooting people who try to leave. Consider whether or not the brutality and mass murder of communist regimes is a feature of the system rather than a bug. Hugo Chavez and Che Guevara both expressed bleeding hearts with their words but used a mailed fist in practice (I’ve written before that “irony” is denouncing Milton Friedman for the crimes of Augusto Pinochet while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Pinochet was a murderous thug. Guevara was, too). Caplan points to pages 105 and 106 of Four Men: Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba. On page 105, Lazaro Benedi Rodriguez’s heart is bleeding for the illiterate. On page 106, he’s “advis(ing) Fidel to have an incinerator dug about 40 or 50 meters deep, and every time one of these obstinate cases came up, to drop the culprit in the incinerator, douse him with gasoline, and set him on fire.”

  1. Are people moving toward or away from the kind of society I want to establish? We get a lot of information from how people “vote with their feet” for different policies. If you’re advocating some version of socialism, you have to deal with the fact that so many people are trying desperately to leave socialist countries. The East German government did not build the Berlin Wall to keep westerners out, and pretty much all of the traffic between Cuba and the United States moves in one direction. It isn’t toward the Castros’ workers’ paradise.
  2. What will I do with people who aren’t willing to go along with my revolution? Walter Williams once said that he doesn’t mind if communists want to be communists. He minds that they want him to be a communist, too. Would you allow people to try capitalist experiments in your socialist paradise? Or socialist experiments in your capitalist paradise (Families, incidentally, are socialist enterprises that run by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”)? Am I willing to allow dissenters to advocate my overthrow, or do I need to crush dissent and control the minds of the masses in order for my revolution to work? Am I willing to allow people to leave, or will I need to build a wall to keep people in?
  3. Am I letting myself off the hook for questions 1-9 and giving myself too much credit for passion and sincerity? The philosopher David Schmidtz has said that if your best argument is that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is most definitely not in the right place. Consider this quote from Edmund Burke and ask whether or not it leads you to revise your revolutionary plans:

    “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood. He would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play, without any sort of knowledge of the game. It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.” (Emphasis added).

A lot of colleges and universities have first-year writing seminars that try to teach students to write by exploring a particular set of issues, and as long as the course actually teaches students how to become better writers, we should welcome new experiments. A course that asks students to put themselves in the positions of aspiring revolutionaries and to prepare their own revolutionary manifestoes is extremely creative. I think it’s the kind of course from which students can benefit mightily–if, of course, they ask the right questions.