Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: Past, Present, and Future - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy)
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IV.: Past, Present, and Future - Geoffrey Brennan, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy) 
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy) Foreword by Robert D. Tollison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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Past, Present, and Future
Despite the anticipated continuity of being, the individual knows that the person who will confront the choices in t1 will be different. This future reality must enter into the decision calculus of the present, in t0, as a constraint. Within limits, the person who will exist in t1 can be “constructed” so as to reflect the preference ordering exhibited at t0—but only within limits. Such a construction will, at best, be only partial, and the chooser at t0 will know that the person alive at t1 must exhibit a will and a personality, a set of preferences, that are “all his own.” The new person, emergent only in t1, may find it in his power to destroy or modify seriously any plans that may be carefully reflected in the forward-looking choices made at t0. The person who chooses at t0 operates in a tension that opposes the continuity of his temporal existence as a conscious being to the reckoned potential for temptation by the less reflective other selves that the future may bring forth.
As a continuing conscious being, the individual may be reluctant to impose constraints on his freedom of action. Liberty may be valued even if the person does not know what will be the object of his actions in future periods. At the same time, however, totally unconstrained behavior may be genuinely feared. A preferred life plan is vulnerable to depletion and erosion by patterns of behavior that the “other” persons in future periods may exhibit. From a planning perspective in t0, therefore, the reference individual may seek out ways to make “subversive” actions costly to those “other persons” that may emerge from the same consciousness in future periods and, in extreme cases, may try to prohibit such behavior.
There are two distinct but related ways the individual might attempt to accomplish this purpose. The first involves the selection of a set of moral precepts that can guide both present- and future-period choices. To the extent that a person establishes a coherent and subjectively meaningful morality, and draws on intellectual and emotional resources in the legitimization and justification of this morality in a manner designed to leave quasi-permanent residues, he will succeed in increasing the costs of any future-period departures from the life plan partially described by adherence to the precepts of such morality. An internal personal commitment to live by a set of moral rules will not explicitly bind choices. But such a commitment can ensure that undesired patterns of behavior (as evaluated from the perspective of t0) will give rise to feelings of guilt. Consider the work ethic as an example. If a person imbeds this ethic in his psyche, by either design or unconscious habituation, sloth in future periods will be accompanied by subjectively sensed costs. Loafing will seem sinful; it will cost more to loaf.
The person may seek, however, to go beyond an instrumental selection of current-period Z’s and also beyond the instrumental adoption of a personal moral code. The individual may, over certain ranges of potential choice behavior, attempt to precommit future-period choice by the imposition of binding rules or constraints. That is to say, the person may deliberately reduce the choice options anticipated to be open in t1 and beyond. There may be a conscious reduction in liberty or freedom of action. The purpose will be to close off possibilities for acting in ways that are deemed “inefficient” in carrying forward a preferred life plan.
As an example, consider Crusoe alone on his island (before Friday). He may deliberately choose to sleep on the beach at a location where the morning tide will rudely awaken him. By sleeping in such a place, Crusoe precommits himself to start the next day’s work early. He closes off the option of deciding when to get up because his life plan includes work rather than sloth, and he wants to remove temptation of the latter.
Precommitment has been discussed at some length by Jon Elster in his book Ulysses and the Sirens.4 As the classic example of the title suggests, Ulysses has himself bound to the mast of his ship as it approaches the sirens’ shore. He recognizes his weakness of will; he does not trust his ability to resist temptation, and he knows that if he succumbs, the larger purpose of the voyage will be undermined.
Precommitment has been analyzed by Thomas Schelling5 and others as a “strategy of conflict.” In potential gamelike interactions, precommitment may offer a means of securing strategic advantage. The general orders the bridge to be burned after his army has crossed the river. Such a strategic “reason of rules” is not the object of our attention in this chapter or, indeed, in this book. In the discussion here, only a single person is directly involved. There is no strategic interaction as such, except that between the person who is and the person who might be. As the analysis has suggested, constraints on future-period behavior may emerge from the rational calculus of a person who remains totally isolated from other persons. The individual may precommit himself to choices that are deemed more worthy in a long-range perspective than a pattern of purely situational responses.
The analysis is not, of course, restricted to the choice behavior of an individual in social isolation. Part 2 of this chapter extends the analysis to the behavior of the individual in choice settings that are explicitly collective. But even when choice remains strictly “individualistic,” the choice setting may be social, as exemplified in market relationships. In these situations, the nonstrategic setting remains descriptive so long as the choice of the individual is not predicted to influence the behavior of other persons directly. Persons who act as demanders and/or suppliers of resources, goods, and services in competitive markets may do so without being conscious that they are bargaining over terms of trade or, differently stated, over shares in the gains from trade. In more general terms, the analysis seems applicable to all large-number settings where the reference person remains one among many and where the behavior of others is taken as a part of the environment rather than as an object to be controlled.
Individual Public Choice
[4. ]Jon Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
[5. ]See Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960).