James Buchanan on “process” and the market order (1982)

James M. Buchanan

Found in Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4

In a discussion prompted by an essay on “Spontaneous Order” by Norman Barry, the economist James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) provides one of the most succinct descriptions of how a market order emerges spontaneously by a process of free exchanges:

I want to argue that the “order” of the market emerges only from the process of voluntary exchange among the participating individuals. The “order” is, itself, defined as the outcome of the process that generates it. The “it,” the allocation-distribution result, does not, and cannot, exist independently of the trading process. Absent this process, there is and can be no “order.”…

Individuals do not act so as to maximize utilities described in independently-existing functions. They confront genuine choices, and the sequence of decisions taken may be conceptualized, ex post (after the choices), in terms of “as if” functions that are maximized. But these “as if” functions are, themselves, generated in the choosing process, not separately from such process. If viewed in this perspective, there is no means by which even the most idealized omniscient designer could duplicate the results of voluntary interchange. The potential participants do not know until they enter the process what their own choices will be. From this it follows that it is logically impossible for an omniscient designer to know, unless, of course, we are to preclude individual freedom of will.

James M. Buchanan’s contribution to the resurgence of interest in free market economics and limited constitutional government in the post-war period cannot be underestimated. Not only did he make pioneering contributions to an entirely new field of economic theory, the Public Choice school, winning the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986 as a consequence, he also taught several generations of young economists who continue to work in this important area. The key insight he developed was the apparently obvious one that politicians and bureaucrats are also human beings and have the same motivations which spur their fellow creatures to action (or inaction). It is a common place that “consumers” and “producers” attempt to maximize the “benefits” which are available to them and to minimize the “losses” or “inconveniences” which they face. So too do politicians and bureaucrats, only for them the things they attempt to “maximize” are not profits or monetary gains but power, privilege, re-election, promotion, expanded departments and budgets, and dare one also say renown and an historical “legacy”. Buchanan spent a lifetime developing these ideas and they have become very influential.