Front Page Titles (by Subject) 8.1.: Procedural Constraints on Political Decision Making - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution)
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8.1.: Procedural Constraints on Political Decision Making - 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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Procedural Constraints on Political Decision Making
As we have noted earlier, our analysis departs from the conventional public-choice framework in which the government is modeled as a relatively passive responder to the demands placed upon it by voters-taxpayers-beneficiaries. We have argued in Chapter 2 that constitutional guarantees of electoral competition among politicians and parties are not sufficient to ensure that the Leviathan-like proclivities of governments are always kept in bounds. In that earlier discussion, we assumed a setting for electoral competition characterized by majority-voting rules both in elections among candidates for office and in choices among policy actions within legislative assemblies.
Once the inadequacies of electoral competition are acknowledged, there are two directions for reform. We might think of imposing constitutional constraints directly on the taxing-spending power, which is our basic subject matter in this book, or we might think of imposing constitutional changes in the procedures or rules through which political decisions are made. With some reforms of this latter type, resort to direct fiscal constraints may be neither necessary nor desirable.
By way of illustration, we can do no better than look to the seminal work of Knut Wicksell—work that has already been referred to several times in this book. Wicksell did not seek reform in the fiscal constitution, as such, but he did seek to achieve more responsive government through changes in the procedures through which taxing-spending decisions were made. In his idealized model, he proposed a rule of unanimity in legislatures. But he acknowledged the difficulties of such a rule in practice, and he seemed willing to settle for a qualified majority approval for all public outlay projects amounting to perhaps five-sixths of the total voting membership. Further, and at a more attainable level, Wicksell proposed that taxing and spending legislation be simultaneously considered. To Wicksell, legislatures should operate under an obligation to provide explicitly for the financing of each and every spending program authorized. In so doing, he recommended a form of earmarking somewhat similar to that indicated by the discussion in Chapter 7, but for rather different reasons. In the context of the modern discussion of constitutional policy, the proposal that government be required to balance its budget is perhaps a reasonably close analogue to the sort of procedural requirement that Wicksell suggested. We shall have more to say about “balanced-budget limitation” in Chapter 10; here, we simply note its status as a variety of “procedural constraint.”
The characteristic feature of procedural reform lies in its explicit avoidance of imposing constraints or limits on the results or outcomes of collective decision making. The proposals listed above, and others that might be discussed, operate directly on the process of reaching or making collective decisions; they do not restrict directly the particular range of outcomes that might be attained. This is not, of course, to deny that there must exist some feedback relationship between the predicted effects of procedural changes and the direction of predicted results. Indeed, some such predictions must be used to inform any choice among alternative procedures. But an advantage of purely procedural reform lies in the outcome flexibility that is retained.
In earlier chapters, we have found it to be convenient to model government as a monolithic entity that seeks to maximize net revenue or surplus. This model is useful in allowing us to discuss alternative tax constraints; the single maximand offers a device that allows predictions to be made about the behavior of an unconstrained Leviathan. It is clear that any discussion of procedural reform, as a possible substitute for fiscal constraints, must depart somewhat from such simplistic Leviathan construction. In the earlier analysis, the objective for constitutional change was one of limiting governmental behavior, of fencing government in, so to speak, without at the same time changing its “character.” The procedural changes suggested by Wicksell, however, are directed at modifying the structure of governing itself and, hence, changing the behavioral model appropriate to describe governmental actions. The surplus-maximizing objective would not be appropriately assigned to a government that operated within the Wicksellian procedural constraints. Such a government would not evoke the Leviathan metaphor, and the whole analysis and discussion of possible constitutional reform would be quite different from that presented in this book.
We have written this book about potential change in the fiscal constitution on the presumption that major changes in governmental procedures for reaching decisions do not occur, and that government, as we observe it to operate, will continue essentially as it is now institutionally characterized. As our other works should have indicated, the stance taken here does not suggest that we personally prefer the strictly fiscal constraints over the procedural ones. Both means of controlling governments must be analyzed and examined. Our efforts here reflect nothing more than a division of labor.