Politics without Romance

Obituaries published by the press tend to pick up on one column. In the case of James M. Buchanan the key column is that published by The New York Times. Since that Obituary focused on Buchanan’s notion of public choice as Politics without Romance, that definition of Buchanan’s scholarship has now encircled the globe.

So, in this column, I present to you the concept of Politics without Romance in the words of James M. Buchanan, rather than the emasculated version outlined by a left-of-center, big government-loving journalist.

“Public choice theory has been the avenue through which a romantic and illusory set of notions about the workings of governments and the behavior of persons who govern has been replaced by a set of notions that embody more skepticism about what governments can do and what governors will do, notions that are surely more consistent with the political reality that we may all observe about us. I have often said that public choice offers a ‘theory of governmental failure’ that is fully comparable to the ‘theory of market failure’ that emerged from the theoretical welfare economics of the 1930’s and 1940’s….It seems to be nothing more than simple and obvious wisdom to compare social institutions as they might be expected actually to operate rather than to compare romantic models of how such institutions might be hoped to operate. But such simple and obvious wisdom was lost to the informed consciousness of Western man for more than a century. Nor is such wisdom today by any means universally accepted. The socialist mystique to the effect that the state, that politics, somehow works its way toward some transcendent ‘public good’ is with us yet, in many guises, as we must surely acknowledge. And even among those who reject such mystique, there are many who unceasingly search for the ideal that will resolve the dilemma of politics.” James M. Buchanan, ‘Politics without Romance’ 1979

“Most of the scholars who have been instrumental in developing public choice theory have themselves been trained initially as economists. There has been, therefore, a tendency for these scholars to bring with them models of man that have been found useful within economic theory, models that have been used to develop empirically testable and empirically corroborated hypotheses. These models embody the presumption that persons seek to maximize their own utilities, and that their own narrowly-defined economic well-being is an important component of these utilities. At this point, however, I do not want to enter into either a defense or an attack on the usefulness of Homo economicus, either in economics or in any theory of politics. I would say only, as I have many times before, that the burden of proof should rest with those who suggest that wholly different models of man apply in the political and the economic realms of behavior. Logical consistency suggests that, at least initially, we examine the implications the samemodels in different settings.) ibid.

“Governments have been limited by constitutions, and part of the Western heritage to this day reflects the 18th-century wisdom that imposed some limits on governmental powers. But the 19th- and 20th-century fallacy in political thought was embodied in the presumption that electoral requirements were in themselves sufficient to hold government’s Leviathan-like proclivities in check,…Only in the middle of this century have we come to recognize that such electoral constraints do not keep governments within the implied ‘contract’ through which they might have been established, the ‘contract’ which alone can give government any claim to legitimacy in the eyes of citizens” ibid.

“The rapidly accumulating developments in the theory of public choice…have all been influential in modifying the way that modern man views government and political process. The romance is gone, perhaps never to be regained. The socialist paradise is lost. Politicians and bureaucrats are seen as ordinary persons much like the rest of us and ‘politics’ is viewed as a set of arrangements, a game if you will, in which many players with quite disparate objectives interact so as to generate a set of outcomes that may not be either internally consistent or efficient by any standards.”ibid.

This essay was published in 1979, just as Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and shortly before Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in the United States. Note that Jim Buchanan remained skeptical of politics throughout the rule of these two market-oriented political leaders. And rightly so. For they, though perhaps less so than those who followed them, allowed narrow self-interest to dictate political iniatives, not always to the benefit of the people.

Sadly, at the time of his passing, Buchanan witnessed a new era of romantic politics – with media sycophants openly talking about the Messiah in the White House. Buchanan died, however, well aware of the validity of his contributions, evidenced not least in the unsustainable U.S. federal debt crisis that confronts politicians of both parties who will not act to resolve it, because so to act would place their political offices in jeopardy. The Messiah evidently thinks more about his personal rewards from office than about the well-being of the people that he is elected to serve. Homo economicus unambiguously rules in the jungle of politics.

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