Bryan Caplan  

The Best of Buchanan

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James Buchanan, GMU's first Nobel, turned 90 this week.  But it was only a few months ago that I discovered what has become my favorite Buchanan essay - "Before Public Choice," originally published in 1972 in Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy.

What's so great about this piece?  Well, I've long thought that Buchanan's contractarian political philosophy is wildly in error.  I loved "Before Public Choice," because he freely agrees with two of my main complaints.

Complaint #1: Contractarianism doesn't even try to discover moral truth; instead, it is a just-so story designed to rationalize the status quo.

Here's Buchanan:
To an extent, at least, a "science" exists for the purpose of providing psychologically satisfying explanations of what men commonly observe around them.  Presumably we "feel better" when we possess some explanatory framework or model that allows us to classify and interpret disparate sense perceptions... The contract theory of the state, in all its manifestations, can be defended on such grounds.  It is important for sociopolitical order and tranquility that ordinary men explain to themselves the working of government process in models that conceptually take their bases in cooperative instead of noncooperative behavior.  Admittedly and unabashedly, the contract theory serves, in this sense, a purpose or objective of rationalization. (emphasis added)
Actually, Buchanan doesn't just seem uninterested in discovering moral truth.  He seems uninterested in scientific truth as well.  Otherwise, why would he say that the purpose of science is "providing psychologically satisfying explanations," and not even hint that its purpose might be to discover how the world really works, no matter how "psychologically unsatisfying" it might be?  (Yes, Buchanan says "To an extent, at least..." but this doesn't get him off the hook for failing even to mention truth-seeking - or science's tendency to upset people).

Complaint #2: Social contract theory is a myth.  There never was, and never will be, a unanimous contract between millions of randomly selected strangers.

Here's Buchanan:
We know, factually and historically, that the "social contract" is mythological, at least in many of its particulars.  Individuals did not come together in some original position and mutually agree on the rules of social intercourse.  And even if they had done so at some time in history, their decisions could hardly be considered to be contractually binding on all of us who have come behind.   We cannot start anew.  We can either accept the political universe or try to change it.  The question reduces to one of determining the criteria for change.
The next clause floored me:
When and if we fully recognize that the contract is a myth designed in part to rationalize existing institutional structures of society...
It normal discourse, calling a moral theory "a myth designed in part to rationalize existing institutional structures of society" is a harsh criticism.  But that's what Buchanan thinks about his own position.

Now if he went on to argue that the "existing institutional structures of society" are great, yet fragile - so fragile that only a Noble Lie can save them, I could begin to understand Buchanan's contractarianism.   But even then, I'd have to wonder: Aren't there any better Noble Lies around?  How about, say, "All of the world's great religions agree that our institutions are the best"?


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
RL writes:

And did you also send him a nice card for his birthday, Bryan?

:-)

Kevin writes:

Bryan, it is best not to run together Buchanan's contractarianism with other views. First, even other Hobbes-ish social contract theories differ from Buchanan quite a bit. For instance, David Gauthier's theory is not a theory that "doesn't even try to discover moral truth." Rather, it IS A THEORY OF moral truth.

Other, more recent contractarianisms often emphasize that the contract analogy is a heuristic device for tracking the really existing deontic reasons that persons have.

As for social contract theory, I think you're misinterpreting the tradition. Even Hobbes and Locke are torn between the ideal of explicit consent and an idea buried in the guise of tacit consent, that is, rational and impartial justification of coercion to all. This becomes clearer in Rousseau and much clearer in Kant. The justified institutions are those that all have conclusive reason to endorse; imagining a hypothetical contract is simply a means to figuring out what people have conclusive reason to endorse.

Rawls should be understood this way, incidentally. The original position is a model of our considered judgments. Thus, Rawls's "social contract" is just a heuristic for generating our genuine deontic reasons. This is particularly clear in Rawls's discussion of the perspective of "you and me" in Political Liberalism.

And in Jerry Gaus's work, this is all set out in clear and distinct detail. Starting with Value and Justification and then working through Justificatory Liberalism is pretty illuminating.

Also: there are lots of evolutionary social contract theories bubbling up, like Ken Binmore's Natural Justice and Bryan Skyrms's Evolution of the Social Contract.

Finally, contractarianism as such rarely tries to rationalize the existing order. In fact, many contractarian theories are quite radical. For instance, and you know this, Jan Narveson is a contractarian anarcho-capitalist. Gauthier's theory has radical aspects, and so do more contractualist contractarianisms like Rawls, who was much, much more left-wing than he is usually portrayed.

It is worthwhile reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on contractarianism: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism/

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Even Hobbes and Locke are torn between the ideal of explicit consent and an idea buried in the guise of tacit consent, that is, rational and impartial justification of coercion to all." -Kevin

"Tacit consent" is like "social justice" in that the former is not actually consent and the second is not actually justice.

Joshua Lyle writes:
We know, factually and historically, that the "social contract" is mythological, at least in many of its particulars. Individuals did not come together in some original position and mutually agree on the rules of social intercourse.

Peter Leeson begs to differ

Randy writes:

Life, Liberty, and Property. For the state that preserves these, any old mythology will do. And no mythology, no matter how refined, will save the state that does not.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

"I think therefore I do" (Henry Thoreau?) is all the rebuttal this needs. We can argue whether receiving the social contract from one's forebears is moral or not - but the fact is that we do. And good luck with the "I didn't sign the social contract" defense. You may, like Thoreau, feel that being in jail is the only just result of an unjust law, but nevertheless you will be in jail.

Granite26 writes:

Doesn't every person implicitly sign their name to the social contract when they cut their hair and get a job?

I didn't sell out, I bought in?

Hippie communes, piratical enclaves, criminal parasitism, disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness... These are all 'opt out of the social contract' options, in my mind.

Sure, the terms aren't explicitly negotiated by everyone at a set time and place, but that doesn't mean they don't have power or evolve over time (sexual revolution)

Part of the contract is the means of enforcement, and if society (or the government) loses the ability to enforce certain provisions of the previous contract, isn't that a defacto renegotiation?

Imagine if they had a war, and nobody came?

I could've gone to Canada, or I could've stayed in school, but I was brought up differently...

Randy writes:

Granite26,

"Imagine if they had a war, and nobody came?"

Exactly. And that is what this whole idea of social contract is all about. Any political class can collect rent without a contract, and as long as staying is profitable, people will stay. But will they fight? Only the true believers will fight.

CJ Smith writes:

Bryan

Regarding your complaint 2:

There is no one social contract, there are innumerable contracts, depending on the number and composition of the members of the society (citizens of the U.S. versus gang members versus family members versus spouses).

Most of the agreement is not explicit, it is implicit. The implicit terms are derived from (in descending order of precision): the parties' parole evidence (ex-post explanations of what they thought the contract meant); the parties conduct of the agreeement; externally imposed codified rules (laws, religious proscriptions, moral codes); ad hoc determiniations of "societal values" by the trier of fact and law.

Many of the societal contracts are contracts of adhesion - you agree to all the obligations and benefits of the agreement by accepting any one one or more of the benefits. Cherry-picking is not allowed. Insurance contracts are excellent examples of contracts of adhesion - non-negotiable, take-it or leave-it. Why do you accept such a contract? Because the benefits "accepted" can be food, shelter, a regulated society, future disability care, etc.

Some social contracts are easily modifiable or terminable (marriage, friendships, employment), some are more difficult, based upon the numbers or amount of power required to effect change (state or national political agreements or structures, large corporate employment agreements or structures), some are or were perceived as immutable based upon length of existence, "sanctity," or limited number of disputes (racial slavery, religious authority, honor towards parents/elders).

Regarding complaint 1:

Assuming arguendo that there is some need for or benefit to be derived from "discovering moral truths," contractualism does so - but in it's own unique way. For moral relativists, the social agreement establishes, as between the parties (and possibly implicitly), the contextual framework, the instant rules of behaviour, and the consequences of compliance or non-compliance. For moral absolutists, the social contract may not "discover" the moral truth, but it codifies the parties agreed upon understanding of what that moral truth may be, and how it applies to the.

GU writes:

The real work in contractarianism (at least the modern variety) is done by the veil of ignorance. Finding what is just by ignoring what is in your current interest and imagining how you would set up society without knowing key facts about yourself is very powerful IMO.

The veil of ignorance can be thought of as a mechanism for reducing self-serving biases in policy judgment.

I've never understood why contractarianism is subject to so many straw-man arguments.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Doesn't every person implicitly sign their name to the social contract when they cut their hair and get a job?" -Granite26

Not any more than someone implicitly agrees to pay protection money to the mob when they choose to move into the neighborhood.

"The real work in contractarianism (at least the modern variety) is done by the veil of ignorance. Finding what is just by ignoring what is in your current interest and imagining how you would set up society without knowing key facts about yourself is very powerful IMO." -GU

In other words, imagine everyone is exactly the same and then watch how easily they agree with each other.

Kurbla writes:

Just think about state as a tribe.

Tribe is voluntary association. Members have the rights and duties; one of the most important is contribution to the defence of the territory. If member decides that he will not contribute, he has to leave the territory, otherwise he is seen as a free rider.

The state territory is acquired by homesteading or conquest. Homesteading is always collective, never individual, because individuals cannot defend themselves against other tribes. Sure, sometimes tribe conquers the territory. Its right on the territory is unjustified. But it doesn't mean that members of the same tribe have that right. German state conquered Poland in 1939. If German state has no right on that territory, it doesn't mean that German citizens have. If one wants to fix injustice, the territory should be returned to previous owner, and it is the Polish state. As said, original owner is always tribe.

You can still think that it is injustice, but Rothbard is not radical enough for such conclusion; you need Proudhon for that - and he is too radical for your goals. Oh well... But you can still *propose* to other citizens to abolish the state. It is legitimate proposal.

Contract? If you find me sleeping on your land, you request that I accept your rules or leave your property - even if I didn't signed any contract with you, do you?

Cheers,

Winton Bates writes:

I agree with GU. The veil of ignorance provides powerful normative support for the ethics of reciprocity.

The ethics of reciprocity may have emerged from a process of cultural evolution in which the groups that adopted this norm tended to be more successful. But that doesn't quite get us to the ethical judgement that reciprocity is good.

GU writes:

Actually Mr. Virissimo, the VOI is all about imagining what you what agree to if you didn't know key facts about yourself or anyone else. VOI assumes ex post that people are not the same.

Imagine you were a typical union member; in the real world, you'd probably be in favor of using the state to strengthen the power of unions. Behind the VOI, would people really vote for powerful unions? Probably not (I think most rent-seeking would be nixed in a VOI deliberation).

The type of things that would come from VOI deliberation would have general, broad-based benefits and costs—just the type of things that classical liberals want! In the real world, the urge to use the state to advance your interests at the expense of others is too much to resist, and unfortunately, politicians are all too willing to facilitate rent-seeking.

Regardless of its origins, I think the VOI can be a powerful rhetorical device for classical liberals; it probably wouldn't produce the bare-bones nightwatchmen state (there'd probably be some level of social insurance), but it would give us a much smaller state, with much more personal liberty, than the status quo. More importantly, leftists/populists/communitarians/etc. are more likely to respond positively to VOI arguments, since it tends to assuage fears that libertarianism is just rich-white-male venting.

Tom Church writes:

Does anyone have a link online of "Before Public Choice"? I'd like to read it and I don't currently have access to the book.

Thanks.

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