David R. Henderson  

Shocking Quote from Buchanan

Why I'm Homeschooling... Peering through the wrong end ...

Written 35,000 feet above the earth en route to Boston. Aren't technology and somewhat-free markets grand?

I'll be the discussion leader at a conference this weekend, an event at which about 14 economists, political scientists, law professors, philosophers, and others discuss, in depth, a number of readings.

I'm preparing questions to start the discussion although, in my experience, people tend to discuss what they want to discuss.

Here's a quote from a reading by the late James Buchanan, who was known for his emphasis on constitutions as ways of restraining government:

The authors of the United States Constitution, the Founding Fathers, did not foresee the necessity or need of controlling the growth of self-government, at least specifically, nor have these aspects been treated in traditional political discourse. The limits or constraints on governmental arms and agencies have been primarily discussed in terms of maintaining democratic procedures. Rulers have been subjected to laws because of a predicted proclivity to extend their own powers beyond procedural limits, at the presumed expense of the citizenry. But implicit in much of the discussion has been the notion that, to the extent that democratic process works, there is no need for limits. The system of checks and balances, ultimately derivative from Montesquieu, has rarely been interpreted to have as one of its objectives the limiting of the growth of government.

The quote is from James M. Buchanan, The Collected Works of James Buchanan, Volume 7: The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, p. 205.

Here's my question: Really?

I will grant that some of the founding fathers did not have this concern. I'm looking at you, Hamilton. But "the" founding fathers? I'm stunned.

You might argue that it has to do with Buchanan's concept of self-government, but in context, it seems that self-government means, simply, democracy.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

That does seem strong. Nevertheless I think people whitewash the extent to which the founders were either enthusiastic democrats or - when not that - at least enthusiastic republicans. Recognition of that point is very clear in the Buchanan quote.

Call it the Isaiah Berlin effect if you want. In the twenty-first century we are largely programmed to think of negative vs. positive liberties as natural categories and evaluating liberal government on that basis. We are, of you will, raised to think that "no taxation without representation" was a protest against high taxes instead of a protest against unrepresentative government levying taxes. Obviously an oppressive extent of government was not a foreign or unimportant idea to the founders (that's why I lead with agreeing that it seems strong), but I think twenty and twenty-first century approaches and interests are different in fundamental ways from 18th century approaches and interests.

It stands to reason, of course. The twenty first century, for a number of reasons, saw a big growth in the size of the state. Of course we're concerned with that aspect. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a big change in the nature of the state, and I agree with Buchanan that that was a big preoccupation of theirs.

Floccina writes:

It looks to me like government conforms pretty well to the stationary bandit model.
But then I ask myself, in a democracy who is the bandit. I think it is the median voter. Sure politicians take advantage of the ignorance of the median voter all over the place but they do seem to cater to the median voter overall.

See here:

Also listening to Bernie Sanders', he mostly focuses not on the poor but the middle class. His pitch is very simple: rich people have a lot of money, vote for me and I will take some of it from them and give it to you. For an example, poor people already go to college for free! Free college is NOT and anti poverty program! People that want free college do not even think it through, they just want something for nothing.

Michael Makovi writes:

This seems wrong. The notion of delegated powers in the Constitution is a check on pure democracy. There are things the government simply is not allowed to do, no matter how many people vote for them. And it is precisely because people might vote for them, that the Constitution bans them.

I agree. Perhaps Buchanan intended some meaning which is not evident to me from that passage alone. But, given what I see there, it seems mistaken.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Michael Makovi -
But the delegated powers are quite vague and broad. I agree that it seems to be stated too strong here, but given how broad the delegated powers are it's reasonable to conclude that the strong concern was for democratic or republican forms of government which would then select the course of action - within the the broad confines of delegated power - that they wanted to take.

MikeP writes:

But the delegated powers are quite vague and broad.

Actually, the delegated powers are quite specific and contained. See Article I, Section 8.

That governments don't tend to remain constrained to their delegated powers is a separate problem.

Dan W. writes:

The Founders were idealistic and as such they created a flawed Constitution. Of course being idealistic they (a) managed to create a Constitution and (b) created one that has considerable merit. Lesser men would have done much worse.

The flaw of the Founders is they were consumed in fixing the Articles of Confederation. The Articles failed to create a sufficiently strong central government so the Founders created one that had strength and authority. Unfortunately, they were so focused on this one objective they failed to consider what happens when the central government is too strong?

On this question they thought they had answers. They thought state governments would balance the power of the federal government. They thought the vote of the people would be a check. They thought the Constitution would limit its reach. On each of these points the Founders assumptions have been shown to be wrong.

The primary error, I believe, is Madison fooled himself. In Federalist-10 Madison discusses factions and ways government might subdue them. He clearly understood the dangers of factions. He talks about their danger. But he simply assumes that the federal government will be immune from them.

Washington understood the threat and warned of the danger of political parties. But there is no law preventing parties & factions from corrupting the federal government. The only barrier was virtue and that scarcely lasted until the ink dried on the Constitution parchment.

Yet the Constitution was successful. It enabled the peaceful transition of political power when Washington left office. It enabled the mostly peaceful transition of power when the Jeffersonians supplanted the Federalists. Most important, the Constitution cemented and fortified American democracy and capitalism and these ideals propelled the nation to become the most prosperous and free on the earth.

After all these years (and several John Roberts decisions, as well as others) the Constitution doesn't seem to matter much. It mainly appears to serve as an inconvenient antique that government officials recognize as existing but which they just move whenever it gets in their way. But for this we only have ourselves and our leaders to blame.

Miguel Madeira writes:

My impression is that "classical liberalism" of 18th-19th centuries was more against *arbitrary* government than *big* government.

mike shupp writes:

I've nothing useful to say here. I'm just sort of mumbling to myself about differences between strong governments and intrusive governments and ... all sorts of things to think about, with little glints of possible future enlightenment already standing out.

This is really one of your best posts, Doctor Henderson.

Robert H. writes:

Daniek Kuehn:

I think it's a mistake to just focus on the federal government when talking about what kind of powers the founding fathers gave government. Whatever limits they placed on federal power, they thought states had a pretty broad police power to do what they wanted.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:
". . . it seems that self-government means, simply, democracy."

Perhaps there is an inversion in that conclusion.

First, do we understand "democracy" as a condition or as a process?

Given the various ways in which the members of a society may exercise powers over the direction (governance) of their individual and group affairs, electoral or political selection practices are not a sufficient delineation of the process - nor, of "a" condition.

So, we may just as well, if not better, consider that it is the manner of the exercises of the process that determines "self-government."

MikeDC writes:

Can you cite notable Founding Fathers who argued against this point? I can't think of any.

Rather, it's my understanding that they understood government to have a general police power in the common law tradition.

The the move to limit it was, as Buchanan says, a procedural one. This is probably the strongest legal doctrine in the 10th Ammendment, which pushes the police power to the states, which are guaranteed by the constitution to have a republican form of government.

So really, I think he's right. The Founders were fine with any amount of laws and government (except the specific limitations in the Constitution) so long as it was freely consented to by the polity (which, of course, was somewhat more limited than it is today).

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