Buchanan, de Jasay and utilitarianism
Two contemporary books of political economy and political philosophy that every student of public affairs absolutely must read are those of Anthony de Jasay The state and James Buchanan Why am I also not a conservative. De Jasay defined himself as both an anarchist and a (classical) liberal; I suggested that “conservative anarchist” might be a better description, but maybe it should be “conservative-liberal anarchist”. Buchanan, an Enlightenment man, was downright a (classical) liberal, but not an anarchist.
I’m reviewing Buchanan’s Why am I also not a conservative in the current (Spring 2022) issue of Regulation. I explain:
Buchanan was a radical liberal, but he was not an anarchist. He believed that limited government and the rule of law are necessary to maintain a free society. The more angelic men are (to use Madison’s terms) – that is, the more they follow an ethic of reciprocity – the less government is needed. The less ethical they are, the more government they need (to the breaking point where politicizing everything reduces both public and private morality). Private ethics and government controls are therefore substitutes. Perhaps libertarians (including this author) have tended to underestimate the importance of private ethics and too readily dismiss notions of fairness.
A major point on which Buchanan and de Jasay agree is that there is no “public interest” defined in a utilitarian way, that is, by comparing and adding utility between individuals as cost-benefit analysis aims to do. In my review, I emphasize Buchanan’s point as follows:
The idea of an individually defined general interest illustrates his constant desire to define all values only in terms of individual values, all individuals being equal. No one can set values for others; only the consent of all individuals is acceptable. In this approach, the arbitrary aggregation of individual utility into some concept of social welfare can only produce an arbitrarily defined “public interest”. …
He argues convincingly that only such an integrating normative ideology can prevail against the soul or “animating principle” of socialism. We need to see policy proposals “in the larger context of building freedom rather than pragmatic utilitarian calculation.” Let us add that many economists, often brilliant, accept simple utilitarianism without reflecting on its philosophical foundations and its implications. In particular, they ignore that comparisons of interpersonal utility – weighing the benefits of some against the costs imposed on others – lack any scientific basis.