– September 30, 2020
james buchanan

“It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” ~ Friedrich Hayek, “Why I am not a conservative”

Sixty years ago, Friedrich Hayek published The Constitution of Liberty. To it was appended a short postscript titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Fifteen years ago, James M. Buchanan published a short volume titled Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism. At just over one hundred pages, it might look like a quick read. The appearance is deceiving. Buchanan turned 86 in 2005, and Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative is a mature statement of how he thinks the world “should” be in light of a very long career wrestling with the most fundamental principles of social organization. It’s a compact statement from a serious thinker who wrote for the ages.

The book collects short essays published after his twenty-volume Collected Works appeared in 1999. This means there is some repetition, but this does not detract from his overall message. Throughout, it shines with the convictions of a man who took his own ideas seriously and, perhaps more importantly, took others’ ideas seriously.

Buchanan consistently rejects the idea that the economist’s role is to develop a social owner’s manual for those at the top of the moral, political, and economic hierarchy. It is, rather, to identify the principles facilitating cooperation among moral and political equals. Buchanan’s normative vision doesn’t flatter anyone with the notion that they are better than anyone else. To the extent he opposed noblesse oblige, it was on the grounds that no one is noblesse.

Buchanan frames the institutional question in terms of a disagreement between Plato on one hand and Adam Smith on the other. As he puts it on pp. 4-5 (emphasis added):

“We may personalize the discussion here, even if loosely, as the continuing debate between Plato on the one hand, and Adam Smith on the other. Plato had no misgivings about classifying human beings along a hierarchy of superiority. To Plato, some persons are natural slaves; others are natural masters. For Adam Smith, persons are natural equals, and one of his familiar references is to the absence of basic differences between the philosopher and the street porter.

The issue is not one as to whether persons differ; the issue is whether or not persons differ in their potential capacities as participating members of a body politic. What could be the basis for any presumptive classification that would elevate some persons above others? By what criteria are the hierarchical classifications to be made? What transcendent values inform any such criteria? And, importantly, who is to establish the ordering?

The liberal faces no such questions as these, since he accepts more or less without conscious deliberation the Smithean presumption of natural equality. The conservative acknowledges the challenges posed by such questions, and I suggest that implicit acceptance of the hierarchical interpretation of human beings is a distinguishing feature of the stance described by this rubric. The conservative almost necessarily infers that persons who stand higher in the hierarchy should possess differentially higher authority in matters of governance. The natural fit is with aristocracy.”

He returns to these themes again and again. That people differ in tastes and talents is so obvious as to barely deserve mention. That they differ in tastes and talents does not, however, mean that some are fit to rule while others are fit only to obey. There is nothing in the nature of the philosopher that makes him fit to rule over the porter. “The Smithean presumption of natural equality” is an indispensable part of Buchanan’s vision. 

Buchanan works at the level of fundamental ideas about social organization and begins, always and everywhere, with the presumption of equality. As he writes on pp. 105-106, “I remain disinterested in efforts to analyse social structures that presume a hierarchical classification among persons and groups. And this attitude persists despite the disturbing, and increasingly encountered, claims about biological evidence for differentiation.” As he puts it on p. 27, “…markets, as efficient generators of the values desired by participants, also fail if, prior to each transaction, persons must identify the trading partner by some discriminatory mark.”

The book is peppered with references and allusions to the “some animals are more equal than others” doctrine in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Buchanan has little use for the doctrine as he concerns himself throughout the book with the implications of the idea of equality among natural equals. Equality is characteristic of desirable social processes, not an outcome produced by those processes. He arrives at sometimes-severe conclusions: implicit in many benevolent and altruistic schemes is the notion of latent inequality and natural hierarchy in which the morally and intellectually enlightened–the philosopher-kings, or our betters–decide on our behalf and care for us the same way they might care for “dependent” animals (cf. pp. 8-9,50). To be a person, to Buchanan, is to be more than just another mouth to feed. It’s to be a responsible moral agent with all that entails.

The role of the status quo is one of the more interesting elements of Buchanan’s normative vision, and it’s where he parts ways from conservatives. The fact that it’s the status quo as such, he argues, does not have any special meaning, but the way people accept or at least acquiesce to it still might be informative: “Acceptance rather than continuing contestability offers evidence that should not be ignored” (p. 3). In a world where obvious injustice persists, this will leave many readers cold; however, this is one of the areas where Buchanan is “slippery,” as Michael Munger calls him. For institutional change to be sustainable, as Barry Weingast has argued in several places, the de jure distribution of power cannot deviate too much from the de facto distribution of power. This seems like a matter of prudence in holding one’s nose and accepting an unhappy trade-off rather than a question of abstract justice: in various places, Munger offers the example of Chile and notes that democratization would have been short-lived had the functionaries of Pinochet’s junta government been brought to “justice.” They likely would have responded with a military coup, and Chile would not be a liberal, democratic member of the OECD.

This notwithstanding Buchanan is at least a little “constructivist” in that he is optimistic about prospects for human improvement. He emphasizes two conditions for a well-functioning free society: autonomy (enough people have to want to be free) and reciprocity (enough people have to see others as rights-bearing, dignified moral equals). While he acknowledges that this is not the case and hasn’t typically been the case historically, he is nonetheless optimistic about people’s ability to “perfect” themselves, at least a little bit, by adopting and promulgating “puritan” ethics (see, for example, his 1994 book Ethics and Economic Progress and this paper).

One thing that comes out loud and clear in Buchanan’s work is that he does not see social science as a tool of social engineering insofar as statecraft, for Buchanan, is not a question of which levers to pull and which buttons to push in order to generate a specific outcome. Rather, statecraft asks how societies develop and enforce bodies of rules making it possible for moral, intellectual, and political equals to cooperate advantageously without one person or group of persons being subservient to the “more equal” animals a little higher in the social hierarchy. We are lost, Buchanan thinks, when a critical mass of people see the state as a way to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

As befits a volume that borrows the title of Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Buchanan devotes a lot of space to commentary on Hayek and his vision. He notes in applying his own work on moral communities and moral orders that “…the Hayekian moral order does contain important communitarian elements, even if these are different from those that are familiarly stressed” (p. 72). We are individuals in that, as Buchanan argues elsewhere, the individual is the fundamental and irreducible unit of consciousness. As individuals, however, we live in and strive for community. This means, therefore, that there are ethical prerequisites for cooperation and coordination. He emphasizes autonomy and reciprocity. He doesn’t seem to think Hayek appreciates these the way he should.

Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative lays out a subtle, complex, and principled vision for a functioning society of equals. Autonomy and reciprocity, he argues, are necessary for peace, order, and prosperity, but at the same time he doesn’t see it as his role to deconstruct society and rebuild it along these lines. Buchanan is critical of radicals who would force others to be free, or who would seek liberal ends by illiberal means. On one hand, Buchanan has a very clear social idea in mind. On the other hand, he isn’t willing to burn it all down and try to replace it with a constructed order he finds appealing. His contractarianism is too radical for that. As he writes (p. 20), “The classical liberal violates his own principles if he thinks of himself as philosopher-king.” It’s certainly not the role Buchanan sought for himself.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

Get notified of new articles from Art Carden and AIER.