|Arlington, Va.: Mercatus Center, 2018
|Georg Vanberg; Duke University
James M. Buchanans remarkable academic careercrowned with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986spanned more than six decades. He was the central figure in the establishment of the public-choice and constitutional political economy research paradigms, and his contributions had transformative impacts on our understandings of public finance, the provision of public goods, the theory of clubs, and constitutional design, among other fields. The unifying theme of Buchanans work lay in its analytical approach, described by the Nobel committee as the development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making. This approach was characterized by a foundational commitment to normative individualism andbuilding on this foundationthe development of an individualistic theory of collective decision making via contractarian agreement on constitutional rules to govern collective choice.
As its title suggests, the volume Buchanans Tensionsedited by Peter J. Boettke and Solomon Stein and published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason Universityis devoted to exploring some of the tensions thatunsurprisinglyexist in Buchanans work, given its expanse and the fact that it was produced over such an extended period of time.
The book consists of eight substantive chapters, authored by some of the most eminent Buchanan scholars, including his former collaborators and students. Before sketching some brief thoughts provoked by the books treatment of Buchanans tensions, the review here provides an overview of the themes and issues covered.
The first chapter, written by Richard E. Wagner, argues that Buchanans political economy represents a valiant but failed effort to square the circle because Buchananin Wagners judgmentwas fundamentally concerned with open-ended processes of emergent social order but tended to treat these processes analytically in ways that could never escape the hold of closed-form theorizing (p. 9). In the second chapter, Roger D. Congleton explores the apparent tension between two aspects of Buchanans view of human nature and individual agency, contrasting his emphasis on individuals as rulefollowing beings subject to internalized constraints with his reliance on the standard homo economicus that is also part of his work. Chapter 3, authored by Peter J. Boettke and Jayme S. Lemke, focuses on the contrast between Buchanans emphasis on deliberate institutional design and a Hayekian focus on institutional emergence. It attempts to reconcile these emphases by adopting a polycentric approach, as exemplified in the work of Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. Randall G. Holcombe examines the extent to which Buchanans contractarianism stands in tension with his apparent concern for individual liberty. The process-oriented theory of constitutional design developed by Buchanan has no direct implications for the substantive content of constitutional rules, leaving open the possibility that constitutions adopted behind the veil of uncertainty are nonliberal. As Holcombe observes, [F]rom a classical liberal perspective, one major issue is whether the constitutional rules with which people agree are also rules that preserve peoples liberty (p. 95). Stefanie Haeffele and VirgilHenry Storr argue that heterogenous societies and the potential presence of unreasonable individuals pose a particular challenge for Buchanans contractarian approach. Because the approach relies on unanimous agreement as the criterion to legitimize constitutional rules or constitutional changes, heterogeneity or lack of reasonableness on the part of some participants threatens the possibility of agreement. Interestingly, like Boettke and Lemke, Haeffele and Storr turn to the Ostroms focus on polycentricity as a potential solution.
Picking up on themes raised by Congleton, Gerald Gauss focuses on the importance of moral norms in human behavior and argues that Buchanans project is torn between its commitment to Comprehensive Hobbesianism and its acceptance of a large-scale moral order (p. 138). In Gausss view, this tension has significant consequences, in part because the precontract state of nature is characterized by the presence of a moral order that significantly shifts the baseline from which contractarian agreement must be sought. In chapter 7, Christopher J. Coyne takes up Buchanans notion of the protective statethat is, the dimension of state activity concerned with the provision of rights protection against internal and external threats as well as contract enforcement. He develops the argument that the protective state leads to the endogenous growth of human and physical capital that enables coercion. This development in turn is likely to undermine the liberty-enhancing purpose of the protective state, even in the absence of nefarious motives on the part of state actors. The final chapter, written by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, employs early exchanges among founders of the Virginia School to examine Buchanans views on the role of the economist. They come to the conclusion that a tension exists between Buchanans insistence on motivational symmetry and his unwilling[ness]Levy and Peart argueto suppose that economists, too, were [sic] characterized by the same bundle of private and public motivations as everyone else (p. 172).
As this brief summary makes clear, this eclectic volume covers a broad range of topics. The chapters are connected by the fact that all deal with aspects of Buchanans work that the authors perceive to be in tension with other features of the Buchanan corpus. In doing so, the book provides a welcome opportunity to consider how we think about tensions in the work of a particular scholar and what the relevance of identifying and thinking through those tensions are.
Richard Wagners opening essay lays out three senses of tension that are useful in this context (pp. 1011). First, it is possible that two aspects of a body of work are logically incoherent, revealing an underlying confusion or a fundamental flaw that undermines the central thrust or conclusions of an argument. As Wagner suggests, this type of tension is likely to be rareat least among scholars whose work is going to attract significant attention.
Second, tensions may develop over time in a scholars work. Such tensions may reflect growth over a scholarly career. Taken on its own, each part is coherent (that is, does not suffer from the first sense of tension), but scholarly development, including reconsideration of earlier arguments, has led to a new position over time that isin certain aspectsincompatible with earlier views. Such tensions, too, appear to be largely absent from Buchanans work. To be sure, there are shifts in emphasis: the Buchanan of The Limits of Liberty, although retaining the basic contractarian commitment, has a less-optimistic outlook than the Buchanan of The Calculus of Consent. Similarly, Buchanans later work is decidedly less sanguine about the political feasibility of securing agreement on nonmajoritarian political structures and therefore moves in the direction of considering domain restrictions on majority rule. But these changes reflect logically consistent developments; they do not represent repudiations of earlier positions.
Third, Wagner suggests that tensions may arise as an inherent element of a body of thought, reflecting what he terms dialectical thinking . . . in which the whole requires interaction among elements, each ofwhich seems to contradict the other (p. 11).This type of tension undoubtedly occupies a central place in Buchanans thought, and a number of the essays in the volume (including Congletons, Gausss, Holcombes, and Wagners) highlight examples of it. Significantly, Buchanan himself was acutely aware of these tensions and readily acknowledged them. This ismost obvious in his devotion to the principle of the relatively absolute absolutes,which he used to deflect critique of the contrast between his apparent commitment to enduring moral values and his contractarian enterprise rooted in normative individualism. As he put it in an interview with Geoff Brennan, I couldnt live without the relatively absolute absolutes. It getsme out of a lot of jams. It getsme off a lot of hooks, too[;] . . . it prevents the necessity of taking a position either as a relativist in all respects or as an absolutist (James M. Buchanan, The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with James M. Buchanan (Part 2), interview by Geoffrey Brennan [Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2001).
We might add two additional notions of tension to Wagners list, each of which plays a role in several of the essays in the current volume. One is tensions that arise out of particular interpretations of a scholars work but are resolved by other (plausible) readings. The Levy and Peart chapter represents perhaps the clearest example. Levy and Peart perceive a tension in Buchanans work revolving around economists motivations. According to them, Buchanan assumes that economists are motivated by the truth (p. 187)an assumption they perceive to be in tension with the motivational assumptions that characterize individuals in Buchanans work more generally. The origin of this interpretation appears to lie in Buchanans conception of the role of economists in public life. For Buchanan, economists role is circumscribed: based on their professional expertise, economists can advance hypotheses regarding potential Pareto improvements in the social order. The test of whether such proposals do, in fact, embody Pareto improvements is whether they are able to secure the agreement of the individuals who must live under them. For Levy and Peart, the fact that economists seek to identify potential Pareto improvements implies that they are motivated by the truth (i.e., the identification of actual Pareto improvements)a motivational assumption that would seem to stand in stark contrast to the model of human behavior employed by Buchanan for other actors. Given the authors interpretation, this is undoubtedly a tension. But, of course, this tension is easily resolved under a different interpretation that is at least as plausible. The returns that economists secure from their pursuits depend on the usefulness of the economists advice, as indicated by the agreement of individuals to their proposals. Thus, the search for Pareto improvements need not be motivated by intrinsic desire but can be understood as derivative of standard motivations that characterize all actors in the Buchanan model. As a simple analogy, there is no reason to suppose that car mechanics are intrinsically motivated by a desire to fix carsthe standard motivation to make a living is fully sufficient. Tensions of this kindthat is, tensions that can be resolved by resort to plausible alternative interpretationsarguably do not raise direct concerns with respect to a scholars work.
A final sense of tension may refer to issues that appear to represent conflict within a body of thought but that are actually as yet unresolved questions that emerge out of a scholars work. Tensions in this sense define the frontiers of a research program. Perhaps the clearest example of this in the current volume is the important challenge addressed in Coynes chapter. Starting from Buchanans notion of the protective state, Coynes argument raises the problem of constitutional enforcement with a special twist. This twist consists of the fact that enforcement is not simply the problem of ensuring rule application when actors face incentives not to comply but also the problem that there areat least in some circumstancesendogenous threats to enforcement that are likely to increase over time (in the particular case Coyne examines, the growth of human and physical capital with coercive abilities). Although it is true that Buchanans work does not provide a ready-made answer to Coynes challenge, it is important to note that this challenge does not identify a tension in the sense of incoherence or contradiction. Rather, Coyne identifies a feature of the political process that is not yet fully addressed within the Buchanan framework and that therefore requires further theoretical and empirical work. Are there institutional mechanisms that can contain the liberty-eroding potential of the protective state? This critical question does not mark a deficiency in Buchanans work but rather the research frontier in constitutional political economy. Tension in this sense is potentially highly productive.
What is the purpose of such a typology of tension? These distinctions are critical because whether tensions matterthat is, whether we should take an interest in themdepends on our analytical purpose. On the one hand, we may be concerned with tensions primarily as a question of intellectual history. Does Buchanans work represent a coherent whole? Did he hold consistent positions? How did his views develop and change over the course of his career? What open questions did his work leave? If the enterprise is one of intellectual biography or the history of ideas, then all types of tensions reviewed above are relevant.
On the other hand, a second type of enterprise may begin with the work of a particular scholar, but its ultimate interest lies in the past and present development of a research traditionin this particular case, public choice and constitutional political economy. If this is the enterprise, then tensions that are concerned with a scholars biographical particulars (Did he hold consistent positions over time?) become less interesting and relevant. Instead, it is primarily the last sense of tension that moves to the fore: What are the open challenges that remain, and how can a research tradition be pushed forward in productive ways? Here, tensions are not so much an embarrassment as they are problems that serve a programmatic purpose, posing substantive challenges that must be taken up in order to push a research paradigms frontier outward.
What does all of this mean in the context of the current volume? At one level, this book is concerned specifically with Buchanan, who undoubtedly occupies a central place in the history of twentieth-century social science. At the same time, to engage the next generation of scholars and to maintain a research programs vibrancy, it is critical to employ a scholars body of work as a launch pad rather than to treat it as a self-contained and definitive whole. As Gerald Gauss puts it eloquently in his essay in this volume, Constitutional political economy is not a completed artifice to be admired and defended, but an ongoing project, constantly refining its assumptions and analysis. Such is the nature of science. Discovering tensions moves us forward, pointing us toward the next stepand a better account of social cooperation and public choice. James Buchanan got us on our way. It is up to us to move further (p. 139).
The strength of this edited volume lies in paying homage to Buchanan without sitting still, using the tensions in his body of work to sketch the next frontier of the research tradition he helped to establish.
|Other Independent Review articles by Georg Vanberg
|Law Without Nations?: Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States
|A Theory of the State: Economic Rights, Legal Rights, and the Scope of the State