Ethical Individualism


I apologize for stealing this section from this article. But I think that this is important to be read as written rather than re-interpreted. You can find the whole article here. You will find this section begins on page 392. This is about James M. Buchanan, an economist who won the Nobel prize in 1986 . “Buchanan’s work initiated research on how politicians’ and bureaucrats’ self-interest, utility maximization, and other non-wealth-maximizing considerations affect their decision-making.

3. Ethical individualism: a society of equals and unequals. Buchanan believed that the intellectual starting point of the constitutional mentality was recognition of the moral equality of all persons. Buchanan (1975a, pp. 3–4) began The Limits of Liberty with a statement of ethical individualism: “the individualist is forced to acknowledge the mutual existence of fellow men, who also have values, and he violates his precepts at the outset when and if he begins to assign men differential weights…. Each man counts for one, and that is that”. Similarly, in The Reason of Rules, Brennan and Buchanan (1985, p. 26) explained that their approach to constitutional political economy “requires that all persons be treated as moral equivalents, as individuals equally capable of expressing evaluations among relevant options”. Importantly, given the accusations of white supremacism recently levelled against Buchanan, he always was unequivocal that all persons were morally equal and that no second class of persons counted for less than others (Buchanan 1971, 1975a, pp. 3–4, 1989a).Buchanan’s conception of consensual politics followed from the conviction that it always was wrong to impose ends, outcomes, or costs on another person without that person’s consenteven if it was thought to be for his or her own benefit. That concept meant that unanimity was an essential component of constitutional agreement because an individual could not enter into a contract involuntarily, “there is no place for majority rule or, indeed, for any rule short of unanimity” (Buchanan 1986b, p. 220; emphasis in original. See also Brennan and Buchanan 1985, Chapter 1; Buchanan 1975a, Chapter 1).The American Founding was built upon a similar belief in the moral equality of persons. The revolution was a revolt against a monarchical, undemocratic government that ruled on the basis of the inequality of persons—that some people were born to rule and other, lesser people were born to be ruled. As such, colonial governments ruled along lines of patronage and ties of privilege that went back across the Atlantic Ocean to the British monarch. The revolution was a rejection of those ideas and destruction of those relationships. The revo-lutionaries dismissed the age-old principle of aristocracy by birth and replaced it with the principle of equality—that all men were fundamentally, morally equal. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Men were deemed to be equal in their moral worth and equal in their capacity for self-government (Bailyn 1967; Pole 1978; Wood 1992).It has been argued that those words ring hollow given that the Founders did not consider African-Americans to be equal to white Americans of European descent (Magnis 1999; Mills 1997; Pateman and Mills 2007). It is important to recognize and acknowledge the exclusion of African-Americans from the society of equals envisaged by the Founders, but, 393Public Choice (2020) 183:389–403 1 3as Douglass (1852) argued powerfully, the fault was not in the principle of equality the Founders espoused, but in their failure of extend(ing) it to all Americans.The Founders’ (partially applied) belief in equality reflected the teachings of the leading Enlightenment scholars that traditional hierarchies were not natural and ordained by God, but were man-made and artificial. Wood (1992, pp. 236–40) has described the widespread belief in Lockean sensationalism during the revolutionary period—the belief that all peo-ple were born intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally identical and the differences that emerged came from the influences of their different experiences. Perhaps the most famous example was Adam Smith’s (1776, pp. 28–29) claim, published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence, that the differences between a philosopher and a street porter, “arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom and education”, so that no difference existed between the two at birth, little in infancy, but great differences gradually developed over time as they were exposed to different experiences. Not all the American revolutionaries subscribed to such a strong account of the individual as a clean slate, but its extensive currency nevertheless reflected the widely held belief in the enormous scope for human improvement if only society could be organized to the benefit of all, not just a privileged minority (Bailyn 1967; Pole 1978; Wood 1992).Buchanan (1975a, pp. 15–17), however, counselled that the belief in the moral equality of persons should not disguise the fact that people were unequal in important, non-trivial respects. Indeed, the unique moral value of each individual flowed from their differences. Buchanan (1971, p. 237) wrote that people, “differ in capacities; even at some defined point in time, inequality in endowments (human and nonhuman) is characteristic of the real world”. Furthermore, in the real world, people also differed in their possessions of property and wealth and those differences had to be taken seriously in any process of institutional design.Buchanan (1975a, p. 17) argued that the opening words of the Declaration of Independ-ence had allowed confusion to enter our understanding of the kind of equality imagined by the Founders and that Jefferson should have written, “to their creator, all men are equal”, to describe more accurately the Founders’ vision of equality. A constitutional agreement must be founded on moral equality, but must also recognize the reality of personal and mate-rial inequalities. Buchanan’s constitutional political economy required recognition of both natural equality and natural inequality (Levy and Peart 2018).Buchanan and the Founders derived very different understandings of rights from their similar conceptions of moral equality. The Declaration of Independence was a classic statement of natural rights—the belief that people possess basic human rights qua people, irrespective of whether other people or institutions recognize those rights. That conclu-sion reflects the views of the key Enlightenment thinkers who inspired the revolutionaries, notably Locke (1689), who articulated influential arguments in favor of natural rights. By contrast, Buchanan (1975a) and Brennan and Buchanan (1985, Chapter 2), rejected natural rights because their existence would imply a source of values external to individual men and women. For Buchanan (1977a, b, p. 244), “the basic Kantian notion that individual human beings are the ultimate ethical units, that persons are to be treated strictly as ends and never as means”, meant “that there are no transcendental, suprapersonal norms” —such as universal human rights. Accordingly, rights existed only when people agreed to assign rights to one another and mutually to respect those rights. The mutual assignment of rights was the process by which people left the state of nature and entered political society (Buchanan 1975a, Chapter 4; Meadowcroft 2011, pp. 50–51).While Buchanan (1971, 1975a, Chapter 1, 1979a) rejected the idea that individuals were human putty who could be moulded into perfect beings by a benevolent ruler, he 394Public Choice (2020) 183:389–4031 3nevertheless contended that the desire for self-improvement, even self-transformation, was a defining human characteristic. It was this ability to conceive the possibility that one could live a different life that drove purposeful economic and political behavior. Buchanan’s (1979a, p. 259; emphasis in original) project was driven by the idea that, “Man wants lib-erty to become the man he wants to become”. Liberty was the freedom to imagine and ulti-mately pursue different, possible alternative lives. Political and economic theories assum-ing that individual preferences were given and fixed and could be captured accurately by external agents were inimical to liberty and the ideals of self-governance and self-transfor-mation (Buchanan 1979a).Buchanan’s constitutional political economy reflected his belief that people sought to create rules to enable the pursuit of their personal, and potentially transformative, conceptions of the good life. Constitutional order freed individuals from ends imposed by others. Like the American Founders, Buchanan believed that a constitution could unleash people’s dynamic potential to change themselves and their world.

Author: Reasonable Citizen

Reserved, inquisitive, looks before leaping, www.reasonablecitizen.com

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