The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan

James M. Buchanan.
Buchanan, James M.
(1919- )
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First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
Foreword by Hartmut Kliemt.



To the memory of my colleague
Winston C. Bush

And the main, most serious problem of social order and progress is ... the problem of having the rules obeyed, or preventing cheating. As far as I can see there is no intellectual solution of that problem. No social machinery of "sanctions" will keep the game from breaking up in a quarrel, or a fight (the game of being a society can rarely just dissolve!) unless the participants have an irrational preference to having it go on even when they seem individually to get the worst of it. Or else the society must be maintained by force, from without—for a dictator is not a member of the society he rules—and then it is questionable whether it can be called a society in the moral sense.
—Frank H. Knight,
"Intellectual Confusion on Morals and Economics"



When The Limits of Liberty was published in 1975, the name James M. Buchanan became widely known even among the less well informed political philosophers and political theorists.*1 The book may be seen as a contribution to at least two debates that were thriving at the time of its publication. On the one hand, it built on and contributed to the "explorations in the theory of anarchy" (as the title of a volume edited by Gordon Tullock in 1972 is called), and thus, on a debate that at the time was one of the focal interests of the Virginia School of Political Economy.*2 On the other hand, the book contributed to the debate about political contractarianism originating from John Rawls's 1971 book A Theory of Justice.*3 Whereas, quite regrettably, the Virginia debate about anarchy was already well beyond its peak when The Limits of Liberty was published, the discussion of political contractarianism among philosophers, economists, and political scientists was still on its ascent. Within this debate, besides Rawls and Robert Nozick, Buchanan holds a central place as one of the "three new contractarians."*4


The term "new contractarians" naturally provokes the question, who were the old ones? Now, as with the new, there certainly were more than three old contractarians. Yet, clearly, the three most prominent figures in the contractarian tradition are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. In the literature, Buchanan is seen to be standing on Hobbes's shoulders, Nozick on Locke's, and Rawls on Kant's. As far as Rawls and Nozick are concerned, this classification seems natural. Rawls is a self-declared Kantian, and Nozick starts explicitly from Lockean premises. Buchanan, however, would not classify himself as a Hobbesian, and rightly so. For Buchanan's deepest ethical and normative political concern is the respect for the autonomy of the individual person. This concern is Kantian, not Hobbesian.*5


Within the corpus of Buchanan's work, The Limits of Liberty has presumably the strongest relationship to The Calculus of Consent.*6 In this regard, some additional observations deserve to be mentioned. On the one hand, the basic normative premise of the Calculus requires that politics be conceived as a Paretian enterprise operating to everyone's advantage. The Limits of Liberty is complementary and logically prior to (even though it is chronologically later than) the Calculus in that it characterizes the status quo from the point where Paretian politics starts and at the same time describes conceivable processes of interindividual agreement that might lead from a natural equilibrium to a political one. On the other hand, The Calculus of Consent is a forerunner specifically of the contractarianism of The Limits of Liberty and generally of post-Rawlsian "new contractarianism." In particular, Buchanan's unduly neglected appendix to the Calculus, "Marginal Notes on Reading Political Philosophy," foreshadowed, at a time when political philosophy was practically dead, many arguments that would later be popularized in other works, including, of course, The Limits of Liberty.

Hartmut Kliemt
University of Duisburg



Precepts for living together are not going to be handed down from on high. Men must use their own intelligence in imposing order on chaos, intelligence not in scientific problem-solving but in the more difficult sense of finding and maintaining agreement among themselves. Anarchy is ideal for ideal men; passionate men must be reasonable. Like so many men have done before me, I examine the bases for a society of men and women who want to be free but who recognize the inherent limits that social interdependence places on them. Individual liberty cannot be unbounded, but the same forces which make some limits necessary may, if allowed to operate, restrict the range of human freedom far below that which is sustainable.


We start from here, from where we are, and not from some idealized world peopled by beings with a different history and with utopian institutions. Some appreciation of the status quo is essential before discussion can begin about prospects for improvement. Might existing institutions conceptually have emerged from contractual behavior of men? May we explain the set of rights that exist on basically contractual grounds? How and why are these rights maintained? The relationship between individual rights and the presumed distribution of natural talents must be significant for social stability. Social order, as such, implies something that resembles social contract, or quasi-contract, but it is essential that we respect the categorical distinction between the constitutional contract that delineates rights and the postconstitutional contract that involves exchanges in these rights.


Men want freedom from constraints, while at the same time they recognize the necessity of order. This paradox of being governed becomes more intense as the politicized share in life increases, as the state takes on more power over personal affairs. The state serves a double role, that of enforcing constitutional order and that of providing "public goods." This duality generates its own confusions and misunderstandings. "Law," in itself, is a "public good," with all of the familiar problems in securing voluntary compliance. Enforcement is essential, but the unwillingness of those who abide by law to punish those who violate it, and to do so effectively, must portend erosion and ultimate destruction of the order that we observe. These problems emerge in modern society even when government is ideally responsive to the demands of citizens. When government takes on an independent life of its own, when Leviathan lives and breathes, a whole set of additional control issues comes into being. "Ordered anarchy" remains the objective, but "ordered" by whom? Neither the state nor the savage is noble, and this reality must be squarely faced.


Institutions evolve, but those that survive and prosper need not be those which are "best," as evaluated by the men who live under them. Institutional evolution may place men increasingly in situations described by the dilemma made familiar in modern game theory. General escape may be possible only through genuine revolution in constitutional structure, through generalized rewriting of social contract. To expect such a revolution to take place may seem visionary, and in this respect the book may be considered quasi-utopian. Rethinking must precede action, however, and if this book causes social philosophers to think more about "getting to" the better society and less about describing their own versions of paradise once gained, my purpose will have been fulfilled.


I am fully conscious of the fact that, as a professional economist, I am straying beyond my disciplinary boundaries. I am motivated by the importance of the issues and by the conviction that contributions in many subjects may be made by outsiders looking in as well as by insiders talking among themselves. I treat here of issues discussed by learned philosophers through the ages, whose discussions have themselves been discussed by specialists. I have read some, but by no means all, of these primary and secondary works. To have done so would have required that I become a professional political philosopher at the cost of abandoning my own disciplinary base. As an economist, I am a specialist in contract, and to my fellows a contractarian approach carries its own defense once individual values are accepted as the base materials. To those scholars, early or late, who have tried to demolish contractarian constructions, my efforts will not seem responsive to their criticisms. This is not my purpose, and those who reject the contractarian approach out of hand will find little in an economist's attempts at clarification.


In this book, as in earlier works, I emphasize the necessity of distinguishing two stages of social interaction, one which involves the selection of rules and one which involves action within these rules as selected. The critical importance assigned to this distinction reflects the general influence of "my professor," Frank H. Knight, and, somewhat more directly, the outcome of discussions with my colleague Rutledge Vining during several years of my tenure at the University of Virginia.


In its specific form, this book emerged as my own interpretation, elaboration, and extension of a more recent discussion that continued over a period of two years in Blacksburg at the Center for Study of Public Choice, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. This discussion involved the participation and contributions of many colleagues and students, only a few of whom can be noted here. Gordon Tullock and Winston Bush were central figures, and the influence of each man on my own thinking was substantial. Each read early drafts of this book by chapter as these were produced. After a quasi-finished draft of the book was finished, and external to the initial discussion, William Breit, Dennis Mueller, Richard Wagner, and Robert Tollison made helpful and detailed comments. At a final revision stage, Nicolaus Tideman offered highly useful suggestions.


As for Mrs. Betty Tillman Ross, only the name is slightly changed from that which appeared in several of my earlier books. Her cheerful cooperation in general and her particular assistance in getting my manuscripts processed through various stages remain essential inputs in my own production function.


Financial support for my own research at various stages of the project was provided by the National Science Foundation.

Blacksburg, Virginia
March 1974

Notes for this chapter

James M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), volume 7 in the series.
Gordon Tullock, ed., Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy (Blacksburg, Va.: Center for Study of Public Choice, 1972).
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).
This somewhat down-to-earth Kantianism of Buchanan is also clearly brought out in some of the essays on constitutional political economy, volume 16 in the series, Choice, Contract, and Constitutions; and the philosophical essays, volume 17 in the series, Moral Science and Moral Order.
James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), volume 3 in the series. Hereafter referred to as the Calculus.

End of Notes

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