Buchanan's Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of James M. Buchanan.

Author:Vanberg, Georg

* Buchanan's Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of James M. Buchanan

Edited by Peter J. Boettke and Solomon Stein

Arlington, Va.: Mercatus Center, 2018.

Pp. iii, 204. $16.95 paperback.

James M. Buchanan's remarkable academic career--crowned with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986--spanned more than six decades. He was the central figure in the establishment of the public-choice and constitutional political economy research paradigms, and his contributions had transformative impacts on our understandings of public finance, the provision of public goods, the theory of clubs, and constitutional design, among other fields. The unifying theme of Buchanan's work lay in its analytical approach, described by the Nobel committee as the "development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making." This approach was characterized by a foundational commitment to normative individualism and--building on this foundation--the development of an individualistic theory of collective decision making via contractarian agreement on constitutional rules to govern collective choice.

As its title suggests, the volume Buchanan's Tensions--edited by Peter J. Boettke and Solomon Stein and published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University--is devoted to exploring some of the tensions that--unsurprisingly--exist in Buchanan's work, given its expanse and the fact that it was produced over such an extended period of time.

The book consists of eight substantive chapters, authored by some of the most eminent Buchanan scholars, including his former collaborators and students. Before sketching some brief thoughts provoked by the book's treatment of "Buchanan's tensions," the review here provides an overview of the themes and issues covered.

The first chapter, written by Richard E. Wagner, argues that Buchanan's political economy represents a "valiant but tailed effort to square die circle" because Buchanan--in Wagner's judgment--was fundamentally concerned with open-ended processes of emergent social order but tended to treat these processes analytically in ways that "could never escape the hold of closed-form theorizing" (p. 9). In the second chapter, Roger D. Congleton explores the apparent tension between two aspects of Buchanan's view of human nature and individual agency, contrasting his emphasis on individuals as rule-following beings subject to internalized constraints with his reliance on the standard homo economicus that is also part of his work. Chapter 3, authored by Peter J. Boettke and Jayme S. Lemke, focuses on the contrast between Buchanan's emphasis on deliberate institutional design and a Hayekian focus on institutional emergence. It attempts to reconcile these emphases by adopting a polycentric approach, as exemplified in the work of Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. Randall G. Holcombe examines the extent to which Buchanan's contractarianism stands in tension with his apparent concern for individual liberty. The process-oriented theory of constitutional design developed by Buchanan has no direct implications for the substantive content of constitutional mies, leaving open die possibility that...

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