By Arnold Kling
Tyler Cowen recommends James Buchanan’s “The Soul of Classical Liberalism,” an essay published three years ago. As Cowen points out, Buchanan is wrestling with tough philosophical issues. Here, I just want to focus on a few sentences that bear on the issue of teaching economics. First, he despairs of training everyone to understand economic science.
the economic scientists by themselves do not possess either the formal or the informal authority to impose on others what may seem to be only their own opinions. Members of the body politic, the citizenry at large, must also be brought into the ranks. And they cannot, or so it seems to me, become sophisticated economic scientists, at least in large enough numbers. The expectation that the didactic skills of the academic disciplinarians in economics would make scientists of the intelligentsia, the “great unwashed,” or all those in between was an expectation grounded in a combination of hubris and folly.
Buchanan suggests instead attempting to foster a vision of the liberal economic order.
In the idealized operation of an extended market order, each person confronts a costless exit option in each market, thereby eliminating totally any discretionary power of anyone with whom such a person might exchange. Coercion by another person is drained out; individuals are genuinely “at liberty.”
He suggests that this vision of the noncoercive nature of market interactions is what should be used to defend free markets, rather than their ability to improve the standard of living.
What I am suggesting is that the relevant arguments in support of particular proposals for change are those that emphasize conformity with the integrating philosophy of the liberal order, that locate the proposals in the larger context of the constitution of liberty rather than in some pragmatic utilitarian calculus.
In terms of my previous posts on making the case for globalization and using math in explaining economics, I take Buchanan as arguing against trying to train the general public in the 2x2x2 model of international trade. Instead, he would make a case for the inherent beauty of free markets, where the consumer has the opportunity to turn down any proposal that is not to his or her benefit.
For Discussion. Suppose that Buchanan were to say that there is beauty in an economic system that gives participants the freedom to choose whether or not to purchase software development services from India, and that the coercion required to prevent outsourcing is inimical to liberty. Is that any more persuasive than the utilitarian argument?