Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.2.: The Logic of a Constitution - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution)
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1.2.: The Logic of a Constitution - James M. Buchanan, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution) 
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution, Foreword by Geoffrey Brennan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Foreword and coauthor note © 2000 Liberty Fund, Inc. © 1980 Cambridge University Press.
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The Logic of a Constitution
We do not intend to retrace here ground that has been extensively covered by one of us elsewhere.2 Since a certain amount of that approach is being taken as given, however, it may be useful to indicate the central notions that establish the logic of a constitution.
The point of departure is the Hobbesian insight that in the absence of collective enforcement of basic property rights (including the right to one’s own life) and of rules by which those property rights might be exchanged, the state of nature would ensure that man’s life is “... nasty, brutish and short.” To Thomas Hobbes, the only logical alternative to anarchistic chaos is the assignment of power to government—or some other institution of authority. In this sense, the essential feature of the establishment of order, of the leap out of anarchy, is the monopolization of the use of coercive power. Anarchy can be viewed as a situation in which there is complete freedom of entry in the exercise of coercive power; “order” as a situation in which coercive power is monopolized.
The perspective that has become characteristic of the so-called “Virginia school,” however, involves a blend of this Hobbesian view with the notion of social contract. If the leap out of anarchy into order is indeed to be preferred by the citizenry, it must be possible to examine the establishment of government as if it emerges from the voluntary consent of those who are to be subject to it. Yet once the “voluntary exchange” view of government is taken, it is also reasonable to ask what is the nature of that government to which the citizenry would agree to be subject. In particular, would citizens voluntarily agree to allow government to exercise power quite unreservedly? Or would they rather seek to impose constraints on the behavior of government—constraints that restrict the ability of government to take actions that it would otherwise take?
Of course, to the extent that government could be predicted to act “perfectly”—whatever that may mean3 —in all periods, there would be no conceptual or logical basis for imposing constitutional limits; such limits could only prevent government from taking actions that are, by definition, “desirable.” In this sense, the constitutional perspective is irreconcilably at odds with the benevolent despot model, which in its various guises underlies the orthodox analysis of public policy generally and of conventional tax theory in particular. The logic of constitutional restrictions is embodied in the implicit prediction that any power assigned to government may be, over some ranges and on some occasions, exercised in ways that are at variance with the desired usage of such power, as defined by citizens behind the veil of ignorance. As emphasized throughout modern public-choice theory, persons who act in agency roles, as “governors,” are not basically different from their fellow citizens, and methodological consistency suggests that the same motivations for behavior be imputed to persons in public and private choices. We need not, of course, rule out the possibility of “moral” (or, more accurately, “altruistic”) behavior on the part of those persons who make governmental decisions. Our approach does rule out the presumption of such behavior as the basis for normative analysis. Those who might argue that governments should be analyzed on such a presumption of agent benevolence are denying the legitimacy of any constraints on government, including electoral ones. In this setting, there is no logical basis for a constitution.
[2. ] James M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).
[3. ] Social-choice theorists have attempted to define reasonable properties that might be expected for a “social” or “governmental choice function.” However, all such efforts have foundered on the central contradiction involved in any shift from the preference or value rankings of a single person to an ordering designed to reflect the potential choice bases for a group or community of persons. The focal point for much of the analysis in social-choice theory has been Arrow’s famous impossibility theorem. The theorem demonstrates that no social-choice function based on individual evaluation can exist that does not violate one or more of the reasonable conditions or properties imposed on such a function at the outset. See Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1951). In our terminology, government cannot, even conceptually, work “perfectly” because there is more than one person or citizen affected by its operation. That pattern of governmental activity deemed to be “perfect” by Mr. A might be deemed just the opposite by Ms. B or Mr. C.