Liberty Matters

James Buchanan as Political Philosopher

As the leading figure in the Virginia School of Political Economy, James Buchanan traversed several disciplines. His greatest fame, as certified by the Nobel Prize committee, is as an economist, but Buchanan saw himself as operating in a tradition that reckons philosophers Thomas Hobbes and David Hume as exemplary members. It is, then, appropriate on this occasion to ask what his work means to political philosophy.
If that is understood as a request for a description of the state of contemporary philosophical discourse, the indicated answer is “not much.” Although I have not undertaken a literature search, my own experience yields few sightings (or citings) of Buchanan in mainstream philosophical publications. This is not altogether surprising. The geography of contemporary academia is such that transit across disciplinary lines typically is slow and tentative. For example, in the immediate wake of the renaissance in political philosophy that followed the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Friedrich Hayek was mostly invisible in philosophical exchanges. Now he is everywhere. [1] Recognition delayed is not necessarily recognition denied. Will Buchanan’s influence similarly wax in subsequent decades? I expect that it will, but even more I hope that it will. That is not because of filial piety to someone I liked and respected but because there is much that the practice of political philosophy can take away from his strategic commitments. I will briefly discuss two such areas below: (1) Buchanan’s distinctive contractarianism; (2) Public Choice’s homo politicus anthropology. James Buchanan’s Constitutional Contractarianism 
Much of Buchanan’s work subsequent to the 1962 publication of Calculus of Consent was directed at working out the ramifications of choosing rules at a constitutional level that will then govern the terms under which subsequent political bargains can be made. This program bears an obvious resemblance to Rawls’s derivation of principles of justice. Like Rawls, Buchanan is a constructivist. This means that rules are not chosen because they are independently ascertained to be authoritative but rather are authoritative because they are chosen (under a suitably defined set of background conditions that guarantee fairness). For Rawls fairness is achieved via a mechanism of standing behind a veil of ignorance that separates individuals from knowledge of their own individuating features and thus deprives them of a capacity to rig the rules in their own private interest. Buchanan’s less stylized characterization of the constitutional choice situation eschews a formal veil of ignorance but suggests that uncertainty about future circumstances is functionally similar. Any rule selected now will govern an indefinite number of choice situations in which one will occupy a vast and indeterminate range of roles. Accordingly, it is the part of rational prudence to opt for institutions under which one will do well in an expected sense whether in any given play of the game one happens to be advantaged or disadvantaged. These contractarian similarities may explain Buchanan’s affinity toward Rawls despite the considerable ideological distance separating them. [2]
The two constructions, however, are not interchangeable. Rawlsian contract is hypothetical and idealized, stripped of time, place and even the personalities of the so-called contractors. It aims to elicit invariant principles of social justice. For Buchanan there are starting positions but no Original Position. Rather, constitutional agreement is conceived like all other exchange as a means for getting from here to there, wherever “here” may be. If rules currently in force fail to allow some potentially productive exchanges to take place, then people can render themselves better off by judiciously altering those rules. This is a program for adjustment in medias res, not the moral foundationalism that characterizes Rawls’s theory and those of his contractarian predecessors such as Hobbes, Locke, and Kant. Which approach is better? The answer is: It depends for what. Without in any way wishing to diminish the significance of the philosophical tradition, I think the search for invariant principles can usefully be supplemented by strategies for principled adjustment. Among the most challenging problems in the contemporary practice of politics is how to replace palpably substandard rules of decision-making by more robust ones. Let me offer what I hope the reader will agree is an especially salient example. The United States and most European Union countries have shown themselves discouragingly unable to get a handle on reining in intergenerational transfers. Both with regard to funding pensions of former public employees and to maintaining the medium- and long-term solvency of general governmental welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare, amassing liabilities has proved to be electorally popular while working out realistic policies for picking up the tab remains well-nigh impossible. As I write this piece, barely two months removed from the near-death experience of hurtling toward the vaunted “fiscal cliff” and two days into the new age of sequester, it is clear that lurching from one ad hoc policy to the next is unequal to the task of rationalizing the budget process. Rather, what is called for is less focus on individual crisis response – which mostly amounts to kicking the can down the road – and redirection to consideration of the rules under which political actors operate. Here’s one thought: Perhaps legislatures would do better if supermajorities were required whenever transfers to current recipients will burden future generations. Frankly, I am not sure how or whether this could effectively be implemented, or whether it would be one of those many cases in which the proposed “cure” turns out to exacerbate the problem. What I am relatively sure of is that no extended consideration of the pros and cons of, say, Rawls’s Difference Principle or any similarly abstract postulate of justice is liable to make these problems any more tractable. On the other hand, Buchanan’s version of constitutional contract may aid us in thinking more clearly about how the rules of the political game could be altered in a manner that serves the long-term interests of all affected parties.
I confess that despite the above, I tend not to share Buchanan’s optimism concerning prospects for intelligent and effective rule change. His version of a veil of ignorance is apt in many cases to be insufficient to shield individuals from precise knowledge of their own expected gains and losses under a proposed new regime of rules. That is obviously so with regard to knowledge of the generational cohort to which one belongs and the gains or losses one thereby stands to realize Thus general support for rule-based solutions to the sorts of issues mentioned in the preceding paragraph are apt to be contentious. But what alternative strategy holds out more promise? Homo Politicus 
Buchanan insists that individuals who enter the political arena bring with them the same motivational profile that informs their market activities. Self-interest narrowly construed is what propels both kinds of efforts. Regardless of whether the individuals in question are office-holders or the voters who put them there, homo politicus reveals himself to be the self-same creature as homo economicus. That is what Buchanan means when he characterizes the theory of Public Choice as a “politics without romance.”
Hume: "In contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest"
By way of contrast, philosophical thinking lays the romance on as thick as a Mexican soap opera. [3] From Plato’s philosopher-kings onward, politics is typically conceived as the disinterested and ennobling pursuit of a common good. Rulers as well as humble citizens are expected to set aside their private interests in favor of that which tends to advance the well-being of the greater community. [4] Rousseau set out with unequaled flair the opposition of a general will to private individual wills, Less dramatic but similarly romantic, the contemporary theory of “deliberative democracy” conceives the primary business of citizens to be, as the name has it, deliberating democratically. More specifically, deliberative democrats argue that it is not enough for people to cast the occasional election-day ballot or even to lend some thought to the nature of their own interests and which candidate promises to do best by them. Rather, they are to study – intensively, as opposed to consuming a handful of soundbites during off hours – the issues at stake and how the candidates stand on them. Crucially, they are then to estimate which among the available alternatives best serves the citizenry at large and then lend to it their efforts, which include but go well beyond the mere act of voting.
Is there a conflict between the pursuit of one’s personal projects and intensive engagement in political discourse? No – not if one happens to be a professor of political theory. For almost everyone else, however, political activity is orders of magnitude less central than making a living, raising one’s kids, upgrading to the latest iPhone model, attending (or staying away from) the house of worship of one’s choice, and all manner of other private pursuits. When politics does enter such an individual’s life, it is probably as an adjunct to these interests, not as the vehicle for pursuing an abstractly conceived common good. Some will argue that this amounts to civic irresponsibility. I am inclined instead to believe that more harm is done to the body politic by excessive political zeal than by too little, but this is not the occasion to enter into that discussion. Instead, I advance the modest point that a theory of democratic accountability optimized for a nation of political philosophers is apt not to fit well a populace whose priorities lie elsewhere. This isn’t to deny that there are lessons to be learned from utopian constructions; philosophy surely is ornamented by the contributions of Plato, Rawls, Nozick, and even that rascal Rousseau. In contemporary democratic theory, however, utopianism is excessive. Deliberative democracy and other utopian accounts [5] offer little assistance to the workaday job of piecemeal institutional improvement. If I may be allowed a brief descent into the jargon of the discipline, political philosophers distinguish ideal from nonideal theory, and it is to the former that they devote a disproportionate amount of attention. It can be argued that mainstream Public Choice theory errs in the opposite direction. [6] I interpret Buchanan as endeavoring to split the difference. Although illusion-free, homo politicus nonetheless is keen to improve his own lot along with that of his fellows by consensual agreements concerning the rules that govern them. Buchanan’s intermediate position can, I believe, support productive strategies for thinking about how democracies can be reengineered so as perform more smoothly. Conclusion 
As Geoff Brennan observes, Buchanan pursued a remarkably intensive and coherent research program over the course of more than 60 years. From it I have extracted two themes that complement the enterprise of political philosophy. If this mini-essay were longer, I would supplement them with others. Here are two that ought to be of special interest to libertarians: (1) the debate between anarchy and the limited state; (2) Buchanan’s unique intragenerational libertarianism coupled with substantial intergenerational redistribution in service of a view of social justice that is more commonly encountered on the left. Mostly, though, in these paragraphs I have been trying to persuade philosophers and the philosophically minded to reconsider the work of a theorist who belongs to them no less than he does to the economists. Endnotes 
[1] There is no mention of Hayek in the index of Rawls’s massive book.
[2] See Brennan’s preceding essay. At a conference for which he and I were co-organizers we observed that this respect was reciprocated.
[3] I recommend to curious readers the Univision network.
[4] A conspicuous exception is David Hume, who advises in “Of the Independency of Parliament,” “POLITICAL writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest.”
[5] See, for example, David Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton: 2009), a splendidly ingenious and technically sophisticated volume that makes no concession to realism.
[6] See Loren Lomasky, “Public Choice and Political Philosophy,” Public Choice 152 (September 2012), pp. 323-27.