The ongoing discussion of Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan’s work, occasioned by the publication of a new and controversial book, helps focus attention on Buchanan’s role in political science. Along with William Riker and Anthony Downs, Buchanan was central in bringing the tools of economic analysis to the study of politics. One thread of discussion, exemplified by Michael Chwe’s recent Monkey Cage post, asks whether Buchanan’s thought was anti-democratic. As Chwe notes, the answer depends on how precisely one defines “democracy.” Chwe argues that given conventional understandings, “the beliefs of economist James Buchanan conflict with basic democratic norms.”
According to Chwe, Buchanan argued that we should make “passing new laws as difficult as possible, requiring unanimous consent” and that “every person should have a veto on government action.” He is right to say that such a requirement would cripple governments, make political action all but impossible and, in this sense, conflict with what we commonly think of as an important element of democracy: the ability of societies, through a representative policymaking process, to address issues of public concern.
But this is not what Buchanan argued. Chwe — like others — misunderstands the role of unanimity rule in Buchanan’s thought. Clarifying this allows us to understand that Buchanan was fundamentally a democratic thinker.
Buchanan distinguishes between everyday politics and constitutional rulemaking.
The key to Buchanan’s political thought is a distinction between two different levels of political choice. The first is everyday politics within a given political system or set of political rules. This might involve simple majority voting in a small group or complex policymaking in a contemporary politics. Everyday politics happens according to a set of rules or a constitution that will structure decision-making. Hence, Buchanan calls it “post-constitutional politics.” Chwe is concerned with post-constitutional politics — the ability of governments to take action, legislate or issue regulations within the system of constitutional rules that define how the political process works.
Yet this prompts the question of how the fundamental constitutional rules are set. If everyday politics happens under a set of rules, how do we decide what these rules should be? We could just ask some privileged elite (a “lawgiver” like the Athenian Solon, described in Herodotus’s “Histories”). Another option is to have these rules imposed by an occupying force, as happened in post-World War II Japan. Buchanan instead argues that the Constitution ought to be chosen by those individuals who are to live under it. This commitment is democratic in an important sense: It recognizes the autonomy of individuals and their right to exercise control over the political order under which they are to live.
This is why unanimity is important.
This is why Buchanan thinks that unanimity is important. If a group of individuals is to choose the Constitution under which they are to live, they need a “meta-rule” at this “constitutional stage” to govern how they decide on the more detailed rules that they are laying down for politics. It is only for this choice of rules that Buchanan argues for unanimity rule as a meta-rule — precisely because it is the only rule that ensures that a political order is not imposed on an unwilling individual.
It is critical for Buchanan that these deliberations take place behind a “veil of uncertainty” that leaves individuals uncertain about their precise position and role in society. As a result, as Buchanan argues, an “individual will not find it advantageous to vote for rules that may promote sectional, class, or group interests because, by presupposition, he is unable to predict the role that he will be playing in the actual collective decision-making process at any particular time in the future.” Instead, individuals will favor rules that “are generally advantageous to all individuals and to all groups.” Obviously, this approach, as Buchanan himself noted, “is closely related to that employed by Rawls in deriving principles of justice from contractual process.” John Rawls’s eminently liberal and democratic “Theory of Justice,” just like Buchanan’s constitutional stage, involves unanimous agreement behind the veil of ignorance.
What consequences will this have for politics?
What rules, then, will individuals choose behind a veil of uncertainty? For Buchanan, they have to address a basic trade-off in making these rules. On the one hand, rules that make it easier to take political action lower the costs of reaching decisions. They also make it less likely that decisions I favor can be blocked by those with opposing views. On the other hand, such rules also raise the risk that others will be able to take decisions with which I disagree. The opposite is true of rules that make it more difficult to take political action (e.g., supermajority requirements, such as the requirement for a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate to approve of new treaties). How to balance these considerations is the “calculus of consent” that individuals face at the constitutional stage.
Critically — and here we return to Chwe’s original point — Buchanan argues that faced with this trade-off, individuals will not choose unanimity rule as the rule for making day-to-day political decisions, and precisely for the reasons Chwe articulates: They will recognize that a unanimity requirement will make ordinary politics impossible. Thus, at the constitutional stage, individuals will unanimously reject unanimity rule for post-constitutional politics. At the same time, Buchanan argues, individuals will typically also not favor simple majority rule for all post-constitutional politics. A concern for some protection from adverse political decisions will mean individuals unanimously will prefer a political system with some constraints on majority rule. Thus, the ideal Constitution falls somewhere on the spectrum between pure majority rule and unanimity.
Of course, different individuals will balance these concerns in different ways and, thus, draw different conclusions about where on this spectrum the ideal Constitution is located. As a personal matter, Buchanan probably favored more restrictive rules than others might. But that is a separate matter from the logic of his approach, which is open-ended with respect to the political order that emerges from constitutional choice.
Thus, Buchanan did not argue that every individual (or even a small group of privileged individuals) ought to have a veto on political action. More fundamentally, Buchanan was emphatically committed to democracy if by democracy we understand the right of individuals to choose the political order under which they must live. If democracy is defined as a commitment to unfettered majority rule, then he was certainly not a democrat. But few, if any people are democrats by that definition, since that would imply that majorities should prevail no matter what they decide to do, including trampling on the interests of vulnerable minorities — which is precisely why Buchanan believed that we would unanimously prefer not choose such a constitutional system.
Georg Vanberg is professor of political science and law at Duke University.
Read more here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/04/james-buchanan-was-committed-to-basic-democratic-values/ by Georg Vanberg Originally posted on http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage