Liberty Matters

Geoffrey Brennan’s comment on Horwitz


A quick word on Steve Horwitz’s latest. Well, two words, actually.
That markets are positive-sum over the long haul for most goods for most persons is a claim that most economists would agree with. Some debate will go on at the margin about how long a haul is needed and whether we should be concerned about the (small number of) long-term losers and about the range of goods – but these are all judgments about institutional efficiency not institutional voluntariness. Buchanan thinks these are connected because virtually all individuals will opt at the constitutional level for an extensive role for markets – but it is only to the extent that they do so opt that the voluntariness requirement is satisfied. Maybe this is pedantic – but note that if in fact people don’t so opt, markets are not voluntary institutions in Buchanan’s sense.
As to “playing by the rules,” it is a fact -- unfortunate for libertarians – that we in the United States have a set of rules that actually permit much more extensive government activity than most libertarians would prefer. Buchanan shared the view that other, more restrictive rules would be better – but the ultimate test of betterness for Buchanan in this is the capacity to persuade virtually everyone to change the rules of the political game in the recommended way! If you can’t manage that, then the prevailing rules are shown to be “optimal”! As things now stand, libertarianism seems to be a minority view. And in my experience most of them are so on the basis of some kind of natural-rights notions. I don’t think Buchanan’s constitutional contractarianism can be mobilized in support of any such “natural rights” arguments: Constitutional contracts are by constitutional exchange, which means being prepared to give up something you value. Rights foundationalists do not usually seem to me prepared to give much up!