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Democracy: The Real Deal vs. the Textbook Version

Written by Gary North on September 30, 2014

James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986. I started reading him in 1964.

He was famous for his criticism of democracy in his book, The Calculus of Consent.

He was one of two Nobel Prize winning economists who won the prize after the University of Virginia’s department of economics pressured him to leave. The other was R. H. Coase. The other faculty members resented their free market position. Buchanan went to Virginia Polytechnic. Coase went to the University of Chicago. The University of Virginia’s economics department has never had a Nobel Prize winner, but it has gotten rid of two of them. No other economics department in the world has achieved this distinction.

If you want to know what’s wrong with democracy, here is a place to start.

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Among the first questions young people ask upon their political awakening is one that should concern Americans of all ages: Why don’t democratic governments operate the way our civic classes taught us? Perhaps no one of his generation thought more deeply about this question than the economist James M. Buchanan (1919–2013). The late Nobel laureate would have turned 95 years old on October 3, and we’re happy to use the upcoming anniversary of his birth to publicize his legacy. Last winter, The Independent Review published a six-article symposium on Buchanan’s contributions to political economy and classical liberalism—all of which is now available for free on our website. Christopher J. Coyne, one of our journal’s three co-editors, kicks off the discussion with an introduction that traces Buchanan’s development of new tools to help us better understand how a democracy actually works, as distinct from how we wish it would work.

Buchanan referred to his approach as “politics without romance,” yet he was fully invested in the romantic notion that intellectuals could and should inspire the public to imagine a better political community. Symposium contributors Geoffrey Brennan and Michael C. Munger (another co-editor of The Independent Review) make the case that both branches of Buchanan’s thought—his realism and his idealism—grew from the same root: his emphasis on constitutional rules of order and disdain for the rule of elites. Buchanan was also a moralist: He believed that one of the most appealing major features of a free society was its absence of dominion and discrimination in human relationships. . . .

As with many prolific writers, Buchanan wrote so much over the decades that claims of his consistency are open to debate. Independent Institute Research Fellow Randall G. Holcombe, for example, argues that aspects of Buchanan’s constitutional thought might be at odds with individual liberty—particularly Buchanan’s argument for coercing individuals to support collective actions that he believed were necessary to further their own goals. Also, like other prolific scholars, Buchanan left a huge body of work rich in insights that have yet to be fully mined. Niclas Berggren, for example, believes that Buchanan and Tulloch’s seminal 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent, has untapped potential to inspire new thinking to advance the cause of liberty. Finally, Hartmut Kliemt concludes the symposium with a look at the logic of Buchanan’s classical liberalism. Buchanan came to his views, Kliemt explains, because he was a communitarian philosopher who discovered the unanimity rule.

(Readers hungry for more discussions of Buchanan’s work can find several more pieces on The Beacon, archived here, as well as a review of volume 1 of Buchanan’s collected work. Also, see Buchanan’s insightful essay, “The Soul of Classical Liberalism,” and a response by Dwight R. Lee, in The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close.)

(For live links to these articles, click the link.)

Continue Reading on www.independent.org

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One thought on “Democracy: The Real Deal vs. the Textbook Version

  1. Buchanan certainly had some good points. Getting down to basics, much of our problem today is the worship of “democracy”. The Founding Fathers abhorred the very idea of democracy, looking on it as mob rule, and set up a central government with constitutionally limited powers. Essentially those were limited to national defense, diplomacy, and regulation of duties or taxes between states (original intent of the Commerce Clause). This didnt sit well with the political insiders, who wanted more power and federal money, so led by the Progressives they conspired to gradually erode the constitutionally limited republic into a democracy they could control and eventually a full oligarchy. Both parties have been complicit, but there is a strong reform movement in the grass roots “Tea Party” movements.