James M. Buchanan and Democratic Classical Liberalism

In Scott Scheall (ed.), Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 37B. Bingley, UK: Emerald. pp. 149-163 (2019)
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Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, raised questions about James M. Buchanan’s commitment to democracy. This paper investigates the relationship of classical liberalism in general and of Buchanan in particular to democratic theory. Contrary to the simplistic classical liberal juxtaposition of “coercion vs. consent,” there have been from Antiquity onwards voluntary contractarian defenses of non-democratic government and even slavery—all little noticed by classical liberal scholars who prefer to think of democracy as just “government by the consent of the governed” and slavery as being inherently coercive. Historically, democratic theory had to go beyond that simplistic notion of democracy to develop a critique of consent-based non-democratic government, e.g., the Hobbesian pactum subjectionis. That critique was based firstly on the distinction between contracts or constitutions of alienation (translatio) versus delegation (concessio). Then the contracts of alienation were ruled out based on the theory of inalienable rights that descends from the Reformation doctrine of inalienability of conscience down through the Enlightenment to modern times in the abolitionist and democratic movements. While he developed no theory of inalienability, the mature Buchanan explicitly allowed only a constitution of delegation, contrary to many modern classical liberals or libertarians who consider the choice between consent-based democratic or non-democratic governments (e.g., private cities or shareholder states) to be a pragmatic one. But Buchanan seems to not even realize that his at-most-delegation dictum would also rule out the employer-employee or human rental contract which is a contract of alienation “within the scope of the employment.”
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