The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy

James M. Buchanan.
Buchanan, James M. and Gordon Tullock
(1919- )
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First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
Foreword by Robert D. Tollison.
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Chapter 20The Politics of the Good Society


Political society is complex and many-sided; perhaps the first thing that should be said about any "theory" concerning the organization and the operation of this society should be to stress the limitations that any single explanation must embody. The theory that we have developed in this book has been based on the assumption that individuals are the only meaningful decision-making units, that these individuals are motivated by utility-maximizing considerations, and that they are well informed and fully rational in their choices. Yet we know that "groups" do exist as something apart from the individual members, that individuals are motivated by many considerations, and that individuals are far from being either well informed or rational in their political behavior. The apparently extreme assumptions of our analytical models would seem to restrict severely the descriptive, explanatory, and predictive value of our theory.


We are encouraged, however, when we observe the scientific progress that has been made in the study of natural phenomena and also in the study of economic organization. The real world of nature is also highly complex, and the assumptions introduced into the model of the physical scientist appear to be as remote from observable factual reality as those that we have introduced. Despite the apparent unrealism of his models, the physical scientist has been able to make significant progress toward uncovering laws that govern the natural world, and upon these laws he has been able to provide explanations and to make predictions that are verified by real-world events. The physical scientist is not, however, dealing with man, and the study of human beings in association with each other introduces a whole set of complexities that remain outside his realm. Social science can never be "scientific" in the same sense as the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the study of economic organization does have some legitimate claim to the status of a "science." Economic theory starts from basic assumptions about human behavior; each individual is assumed to attempt to maximize his own utility. Individuals are also assumed to be fully informed and to be rational in their behavior. On the basis of these assumptions a body of theory has been developed which does provide some satisfactory explanations of real-world phenomena. We know, of course, that in the economic as well as the political relationship, individuals are not entirely rational, they are not well informed, and they do not follow self-interest in all circumstances. Yet we can observe that people purchase more goods at lower prices, that wage rates for similar occupations tend to equality, that the return on investment will tend to be equalized in different employments, and many other propositions of "positive" economics that can be subjected to empirical testing.


In this book we have tried to extend the assumptions of the economist to the behavior of the individual as he participates in the political process. As we have suggested at several points, the explanatory value of our preliminary theory is considerably more limited than that of economic theory. We think, however, that the "theory," as developed here, does provide some "explanation" of certain aspects of political organization.

The Logical Model


Relevant theory is made up of two parts, and our construction embodies both of these. First, on the basis of certain initial postulates and assumptions, the logical consequences can be developed. This sort of theorizing is purely logical in nature and has no empirical relevance in the direct sense. Herein, theory resembles mathematics. Our approach to individual constitutional choice can be interpreted in this way. On the basis of the assumption that individuals do follow utility-maximizing rules of behavior and that they are fully informed and rational, we can work out the consequences of the various rules for making collective choices. To some extent this is what we have done in our simple models in earlier chapters. In this respect we should emphasize that the conclusions depend strictly on the assumptions introduced, and, barring logical errors in the reasoning, there can be no question as to the "truth" or "falsity" of the theory.


This pure logic of constitutional choice is unique only in that we have introduced assumptions that are different from those of other scholars. The important thing to note in this respect is that an infinite number of theories of this purely logical sort can be developed. The usefulness of the logical model depends solely on the relevance of the model to real-world issues.

The Operational Model


The only means of testing or verifying the logical structure lies in comparing some of the predictions that can be made on the basis of the theory with observations of the real world. At several points in the analysis we have referred to certain institutional facts that seemed to lend support to the theoretical model under construction. By and large, the operation of the political process in Western democracies suggests to us that our theoretical model does have explanatory value, but what is meant by explanatory value in this respect? If our theory is capable of explaining all conceivable configurations that might be observed in the real-world political process, then it is no theory at all. Adopting the conception of the logical positivists for the moment, we could then say that the construction is meaningless. In order to maintain that our construction has some operational validity, we must show that there are conceivable observations that would refute the fundamental hypotheses.


What observable real-world events could refute the hypotheses of the model? Obviously, we cannot directly observe whether or not individuals maximize their own utility. The statement that they do so is, in one sense, meaningless, or, to use a more acceptable term, nonoperational. Nor can we readily observe whether or not individuals act rationally. To test the empirical relevance of our construction we must, therefore, turn to the implications of these behavioral assumptions for the operation of political-choice processes and the evolution of political institutions. We should stress that we do not intend to develop in any exhaustive way the operational implications of our analysis at this point. We may, however, suggest a few tests.


If, for example, we should observe a social group operating under less inclusive rules for constitutional change than for day-to-day operational decisions, this would seem clearly to refute the central hypothesis of our theory. If we should observe single groups deciding unilaterally to give up special-privilege legislation, our hypotheses are refuted. If we could observe the oil industry pressure group petitioning Congress for an elimination of the depletion allowance, if we could observe the American watchmakers unilaterally petitioning the President to lower the tariff rates on Swiss and Japanese watch imports, if we could observe the California farmers actively opposing federal irrigation projects, then we should have clear evidence that some conception of the political process alternative to our own should be sought. These few examples are sufficient to suggest that our theory is an operational one; the hypotheses are conceptually refutable, and we can easily imagine observable events that would refute particular elements of the theory. The fact that the required events seem only remotely possible in our examples provides some indication that empirical support for our construction is relatively strong.


There exist, of course, certain other observable phenomena that clearly refute the testable version of our hypotheses. Insofar as these can be found and observed, our hypotheses are weakened. We have nowhere proposed or suggested that the "economic" approach can explain all aspects of the complex political process. We suggest only the much more limited hypothesis that the approach does explain certain elements of modern political activity that have previously been unexplainable with standard models.

The Imperfect Ideal


One of the more significant doctrinal implications of our construction lies in its implicit rationalization of a political structure that has never seemed to possess rigorous theoretical foundation. The analysis shows quite clearly that the "ideal" organization of activity may embody many and varying rules for making collective decisions, may involve considerable investment in decision-making costs, may include many of the so-called checks and balances, may allow considerable administrative authority on certain matters, may be quite restrictive as regards amendments to a written constitution, and may provide quite rigid protections to the so-called inalienable rights. The apparent inefficiency that this over-all system may seem to introduce when other criteria of organization are employed disappears in the construction that has been developed in this book.


This is not, of course, to suggest that the American experiment in constitutional democracy is the best of all possible political worlds. The purpose of this construction has not been to provide this sort of rationalization. It remains true, however, that in the course of this work the authors have come to appreciate more fully the genius of the Founding Fathers in the construction of the American system. We do not think that this genius can be wholly separated from its environment, which was also that in which the ideas of economic theory were initially developed. The rather bewildering complex of institutions that makes up the American decision-making system does not seem openly to contradict the fundamental hypotheses of our model. This is the extent to which our construction serves as a rationalization for what is, or perhaps more aptly stated, what is supposed to be.


We think, nevertheless, that this point in itself is a useful one. Our analysis, broadly interpreted, is quite similar in many respects to that of those scholars who have continued to express an implicit faith in the pragmatic, groping process that has characterized American democratic institutions. In an unsystematic way many of these writers have perhaps sensed the essential approach that we have been able to make somewhat more rigorous in this work. At the outset we suggested that our purpose was to provide some "theoretical determinacy" to the working of "individualist democracy." If we have done so, the supporters of this conception of democratic process will perhaps have a somewhat stronger theoretical base from which to defend their position against the continuing onslaughts of the proponents of "idealist democracy."


We hope especially that our theoretical construction will cause the student of political process, as well as the man in the street, to consider more carefully and more cautiously the proper place of majority rule in the constitutional system. The discussion surrounding this conception has been perhaps the most confused part of political theory. The failure to distinguish between the power of a majority to take positive action and the power to block action has caused qualified majority rule to be equated with minority rule. All of such arguments would have been more fruitful if it had been recognized that any decision-making rule, other than that of unanimity, is itself a choice that the group must make at the constitutional level. Moreover, it must be recognized that any rule imposes some costs. Once these simple elements of our theory are understood, majority rule becomes simply one rule among a continuous set of possible rules for organizing collective decisions.

The Politics of the Good Society


We have argued that our theoretical structure does have some operational relevance in the understanding of modern political institutions and that it does provide some conceptual rationalization for the type of political complex represented by American constitutional democracy. We have not specifically answered the question as to whether or not the politics of the sort embodied in our theory is a part of the operation of a "good" society, and we should stand properly accused of intellectual cowardice if we should end this book without further comment on this matter. Accept the fact that some men, some of the time, do act so as to promote partisan private or group interests through political means; accept that our models do help to explain many of the results. However, are we prepared to say that these results are "desirable" attributes of the social order?


We do not intend to evade this question, but, before answering it, we should insist on some clarification of the issues. It is essential that it be understood that those characteristics which are "desirable" in the behavior of a person or persons are wholly independent of those characteristics that are "desirable" in an institutional structure. The moralist must be distinguished from the social philosopher. Our whole approach has concentrated on the institutional organization of social activity.


If we start from a rigidly conceived institutional organization, the only relevant variable becomes the behavior of individual human beings. Given any organization of social life, there are certain moral or ethical standards of conduct, and these may be discussed objectively and dispassionately. Under certain circumstances, widespread agreement may be reached regarding the content of a set of moral precepts or principles. For centuries the Judeo-Christian world has accepted certain ethical ideals, at least to some degree. Among these ideals has been the responsibility of the individual to make choices on the basis of an interest broader than that which is defined by his own selfish short-run gains. The familiar golden rule and the admonition to "Love thy neighbor" both express this principle.


Insofar as these ideals do motivate individuals, the differences among the results produced by separate organizational systems are reduced. Moreover, given any social organization that does allow for some "exploitation" of man by man (and none exists that does not), more acceptable results will follow from a greater devotion to these moral ideals. Indeed, a widespread adoption of Judeo-Christian morality may be a necessary condition to the operation of any genuinely free society of individuals.


Several qualifying points need to be introduced before proceeding further. Behavior in accordance with the precepts of the golden rule, literally interpreted, can lead to a conflict of individual interests that is equally as intense as that which would arise under the operation of pure self-interest. Christian idealism, to be effective in leading to a more harmonious social order, must be tempered by an acceptance of the moral imperative of individualism, the rule of equal freedom. The acceptance of the right of the individual to do as he desires so long as his action does not infringe on the freedom of other individuals to do likewise must be a characteristic trait in any "good" society. The precept "Love thy neighbor, but also let him alone when he desires to be let alone" may, in one sense, be said to be the overriding ethical principle for Western liberal society.


If we are to allow the individual to be free, however, we cannot be assured that he will always follow the moral rules agreed on by the philosophers as being necessary for harmonious social life. The individual may behave "badly," and, if he does so, he may gain "unfair" advantages over his fellows. This brings us squarely to the central issue. Should the social order be organized to allow moral deviants to gain at the expense of their fellows? Or instead, should the institutional arrangements be constructed in such a way that the "immoral" actor can gain little, if at all, by his departure from everyday standards of behavior? These questions are based on the acceptance of the "idea of progress" as applied to social organization, that is, on the assumption that social organization is subject to criticism and to change and that it can be "improved"—and presumably such change can modify the degree to which the individual actor who departs from morally acceptable behavior patterns can exploit his fellow men.


It should be emphasized that no social organization in which men (some men or all men) are allowed freedom of choice can prevent the exploitation of man by man and group by group. Our construction is helpful in that it enables us to illustrate this point quite clearly. The relevant choice among alternative institutions reduces to that of selecting that set which effectively minimizes the costs (maximizes the benefits) of living in association. The shift from market organization to political organization does not, in any way, eliminate the opportunity for specific individuals and groups to impose external costs on others. This extremely simple conclusion, which we have repeated many times, has not been adequately recognized. Market organization, however, is based on the idea that individuals will tend, by and large, to seek their own interest. This does not suggest that each and every participant in the marketplace is assumed to try to exert the maximum effort to secure short-run gains. It does suggest that the social philosophy of market organization recognizes this behavior as a possibility and that the organizational norms are based on the view that this sort of behavior can be channeled in such a direction that it becomes beneficial rather than detrimental to the interests of all members of the community. These organizational norms are misunderstood and grossly misrepresented in much of the critical discussion of the market order. This order is not, in any sense, organized on the principle that self-seeking activity is morally "good." There is no conflict between the philosophy of the market, which is a philosophy of social organization, and that of Christianity, which is a philosophy of individual behavior. The market order is founded on the empirical reality that not all men renounce self-interest, and that, because of this, the pursuit of private gain should be put to social use where this is possible.


The question that we have posed in this work concerns the possibility of extending a similar approach to political organization. Can the pursuit of individual self-interest be turned to good account in politics as well as in economics? We have tried to outline the sort of calculus that the individual must undergo when he considers this question. We have discussed the formation of organizational rules that might result from such a rational calculus. In our more rigorous analytical models we have adopted the extreme assumption that each participant in the political process tries, single-mindedly, to further his own interest, at the expense of others if this is necessary. We were able to show that, even under such an extreme behavioral assumption, something closely akin to constitutional democracy as we know it would tend to emerge from rational individual calculus. We believe that this in itself is an important proof that should assist in the construction of a genuine theory of constitutional democracy.


In developing this analysis we are not, in any way, glorifying the pursuit of self- or group interest by political means. Empirical evidence does seem to point toward this pursuit as an important element in modern democratic process. Our approach is based on the idea that, insofar as this pursuit of self-interest does take place, it should be taken into account in the organization of the political constitution. Only in this way can the institutional setting for collective choice-making be constructed so as to confine the exploitation of man by man within acceptable limits. We are convinced that man can organize his political society better by putting checkreins on his behavior in advance, checkreins which effectively restrain the behavior of the deviant from the "moral way"—behavior that may be observed only occasionally and temporarily but which may also be quite characteristic of real-world human beings.


To the extent that the individual, in his capacity as decision-maker for the group, is able to divorce himself from his own interests (his own set of values) and to take a broadly based attitude of Kantian scope, the external costs that any decision-making rule is expected to impose are reduced. We do not deny this possibility or even the common appearance of such an attitude on the part of individual electors or on that of legislators and administrators. Moreover, insofar as this attitude exists, somewhat fewer constitutional constraints on the operation of ordinary rules for collective choice may be dictated than would otherwise be indicated as rational. It should be stressed that moral restraint is a substitute for institutional-constitutional restraint, and in a society with more of the former there will be less need for the latter, and vice versa. Our quarrel with those who would rely primarily on the moral restraint of individuals to prevent undue exploitation of individuals and groups through the political process is, therefore, at base, an empirical one. The assessment of the nature of man himself will, or should, determine the respective importance that is placed on institutional-constitutional restraint and on moral limitations on the behavior of individuals in political society.


The assessment of human nature that is required here cannot, however, be limited to an observation of man's activity in the political process to the exclusion of his activity elsewhere. The modern critic of constitutional democracy who calls for more direct operation of majority rule cannot, at the same time, rationally condemn modern man for his attention to selfish and short-run interests in the nation's market place. If modern man is unduly interested in the emoluments of the affluent society (in creature comforts), he is not likely to shed this cloak merely because he is placed in a slightly different institutional complex. A shift of activity from the market sector cannot in itself change the nature of man, the actor in both processes. The individual who seeks short-run pleasures through his consumption of modern "luxury" items sold in the market is precisely the same individual who will seek partisan advantage through political action. The man who spends his time at the television set or in his automobile in private life is not the man who is likely to vote for more taxes to finance libraries, concerts, and schools. This simple point seems to have been almost entirely overlooked in the so-called "great debate" of the 1960's.


It is not surprising that our conception of the "good" political society should resemble that held by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Our analysis marks a return to an integration of the political and the economic problems of social organization, and constitutional democracy in its modern sense was born as a twin of the market economy. With the philosophers of the Enlightenment we share the faith that man can rationally organize his own society, that existing organization can always be perfected, and that nothing in the social order should remain exempt from rational, critical, and intelligent discussion. Man's reason is the slave to his passions, and recognizing this about himself, man can organize his own association with his fellows in such a manner that the mutual benefits from social interdependence can be effectively maximized.

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