Six Faces of Right-Wing Chain-Forging Economist James Buchanan…

Steven Teles inquired why I liked Will Wilkinson’s essay How Libertarian Democracy Skepticism Infected the American Right much more than I liked Henry Farrell and Steven Teles’s essays When Politics Drives Scholarship and Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them as takes on Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains

I must confess that I was struck by the contrast between the, on the one hand, enormously generous hermeneutic through which [Steve Teles and Henry Farrell] read James Buchanan and the, on the other hand, ungenerous hermeneutic through which [they] read Nancy McLean….

I see at least six James Buchanans:

  1. The brilliant academic thinker behind the genius insights of Calculus of Consent It is worth noting that the framework underlying CoC with its emphasis on unanimity at the constitutional stage for any regime that can be just or justified, has a profoundly egalitarian and even Rawlsian bent—a bent that becomes stronger the thinner you make the veil of ignorance and the more averse to risk you make the people behind it. Thus the fact that Buchanan deduces a profoundly anti-egalitarian politics and built from it an intellectual movement that, as Mancur Olson used to say, “has a very strong right but a very weak left wing, and will never be healthy until both are equally strong” from it, is deserving of much careful and thoughtful inquiry.
  2. The academic operator seeking to get money from ex-Governor and U.Va. President Darden for the great public choice research project by overpromising how useful his Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy would be in providing intellectual weapons to strengthen the political causes of Darden and his friends.
  3. The academic operator going beyond what I, at least, regard as the permissible academic pale by imposing a political-ideological litmus test on who he invited into the public choice circle—i.e., not Mancur Olson, or any Olson students or potential Olson students (like me, in my younger days). That only “‘Manchester’ liberals who emphasize individual freedom as the central feature of the good society” and “Western conservatives who
    emphasize the importance of Western traditions in preserving the good social order” are invited in is, IMHO at least, in shocking contrast to say, Marty Feldstein’s NBER, where the bet is that an honest intellectual process will show that I am right—and if it shows otherwise, I badly need to know that.
  4. The grandson of Kentucky Governor John Buchanan, offended that Yankees would dare tell southern gentlemen how to deal with their “peculiar institutions”. (And just what are these “Western traditions”? And how near to the core of these “Western traditions” is white supremacy anyway? That the language here is Aesopian is not to Buchanan’s credit.)
  5. The friend of plutocrats or would-be plutocrats buying into the Hayekian idea that political democracy was, fundamentally, a mistake because the plebes would vote themselves bread-and-circuses and so ultimately destroy civilization.
  6. The right-wing activist seeking, in a von Misian or Rothbardian way, to harness and in fact mobilize racial evil to the service of what he regarded as the good of stomping the New Deal and Keynesian economics into oblivion.

I tend to see Buchanan(1) as at least half the picture. (I was, after all, one of the two people at the fall 1986 MIT Economics Department Wednesday faculty lunch after the Nobel Prize announcement willing to say that awarding the prize to James Buchanan was not an obvious and stupid mistake—the other one, IIRC, being Jim Poterba). Our elders had very strong opinions..

Nancy sees Buchanan(6) as 1/3 of the picture, Buchanan(5) as 1/3 of the picture, Buchanan(4) as 1/6 of the picture, Buchanan(3) as 1/6 of the picture, and does not see Buchanan(2) or Buchanan(1) at all.

But, of course, they cannot be separated. They are all in there together.

And I think Will Wilkinson: How Libertarian Democracy Skepticism Infected the American Right overwhelmingly gets closest to the proper balance of anything I have read so far…

Cf., also:


Brad DeLong


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