Each fall I teach a graduate seminar to PhD students on Constitutional Economics. This field of research in economics is inspired by the work of James Buchanan, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in Economic Science. The seminar is devoted to the philosophical, historical and analytical puzzles associated with efforts to constrain the state.
Buchanan is the source of some of my favorite phrases of wisdom for economists and social philosophers. "Dare to be different"; "All work is work in progress"; "Writing is research"; and "It takes varied reiterations to force alien concepts upon reluctant minds" are all phrases I heard him utter over the years (I know the last one comes from Herbert Spencer, but it was from Buchanan that I heard it first). As his student I listened to his words with great interest and read his words even more closely. I believe that many of his essays possess some of the wisest political-philosophical-economic statements penned in the 20th century. I obviously don't agree with everything he wrote, but I do think he has a way of stating questions for research in political economy that I find more productive than any of his contemporaries.
Three of my favorite essays are in fact three of his most obscure: "Natural and Artifactual Man" published in What Should Economists Do? (1979), "Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence" published in the Institute for Humane Studies publication Literature of Liberty (1982), and "The Potential and Limits of Socially Organized Humankind", published in his collection The Economics and Ethics of Constitutional Order (1991). These essays deal respectively with individual choice, economic processes, and the social order in general, and present to the reader a unique framework for economic and political analysis.
In the first class I took from Buchanan in the fall of 1984, he asked us to consider the question "Who is the individual in economic models?" This question has stayed with me ever since. What is it that we are trying to explain in our intellectual efforts to treat human choice as an exercise in maximazation within given constraints? As Deirdre McCloskey has often said, isn't there more to economic life than our curious friend Max U? James Buchanan certainly thinks so. In "Natural and Artifactual Man", Buchanan explores the comparative strenghts of a thoroughgoing subjectivism over the mechanical interpretation of human choice found in the work of orthodox economists such George Stigler and Gary Becker. He argues that "once man is conceived in the image of an artifact, who constructs himself through his own choices, he sheds the animalistically determined path of existence laid out for him by the orthodox economists' model. A determined and programmed existence is replaced by the uncertain and exciting quest that life must be." (p. 110) Buchanan concludes his analysis of chosing man with the summary statement: "Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become." (p. 112) Our lives have meaning because we contruct them through our active choices through time. Human life is not a script written for us by genetic code or historical forces beyond our control.
But this image of man as active chooser also requires that individuals willingly embrace the challenge of constructing their life and accept the responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Liberty and responsibility are concepts at the core of Buchanan's reflections on the human predictament and thus in the proper domain of economic and political analysis. The political economist inspired by Buchanan's argument would whole heartedly agree because they find it unobjectionable that individuals want to be free to make their own choices. Autonomy is valued and cherished by individuals across the political spectrum even if they don't recognize the full impact of the concept in their political and economic philosophy.
But Buchanan has more recently argued that we may be losing this sense of ourselves in the modern age. Autonomy is losing its appeal. The learned helplessness we have acquired by living in a political culture of preferential treatment and protection from ourselves may have left the modern mind incable of accepting the responsibilities of freedom. We are instead afraid to be free. This shift in our human imagination is perhaps the most dangerous threat to economic and political freedom we have faced yet.
The threats to political and economic freedom in the 20th century came from:
(1) managerial socialism --- which argued that central planning by the government could organize affairs more ratioally than market forces;
(2) paternalistic socialism --- where an elite argued that the government had to step in and protect individuals from the poor choices they would make (the nanny state);
(3) distributional socialism --- where the state would be entrusted to provide an equitable distribution of resources.
But Buchanan claims in his essay "Afraid to Be Free: Dependence as Desideratum" that the new threat in the 21st century comes in the form of:
(4) parental socialism --- where the individuals invite the government to meddle in their lives to protect them from themselves and provide security in their lives from the vagaries of a life left to their own making.
This form of statism has been understudied by political economists. It was one thing to intellectually fight the conception of human choice as pre-programmed with an emphasis on the open-endedness of choice and the meaning our lives find in the process of constructing that life through time with our choices. But embracing that freedom also implies embracing the responsibility that goes with open ended choice. What are we to make of things when individuals "do not want to shoulder the final responsibility of their own actions"?
Benjamin Franklin once remarked that anyone who would trade-off their liberty for security deserves neither. But to even make that remark means that the phenomena that Buchanan is talking about isn't really new. It is just another part of the complex puzzle that is humanity. However this desire to be held unaccountable for our actions and to be protected from any poor choices we may make serves as a counter-productive force in society. We must remember that one of the 18th century arguments that Smith and his contemporaries made about the superiority of commercial society was the character development it engendered by making individuals responsible for their choices and accountable to others through the discipline of repeated dealings on the market.
My colleague Bryan Caplan has a most interesting discussion of aspects of freedom and responsibility, though motivated in a totally different manner than the way I have raised the topic, in his essay on the economics of Thomas Szasz.