James Buchanan, GMU’s first Nobel, turned 90 this week.  But it was only a few months ago that I discovered what has become my favorite Buchanan essay – “Before Public Choice,” originally published in 1972 in Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy.

What’s so great about this piece?  Well, I’ve long thought that Buchanan’s contractarian political philosophy is wildly in error.  I loved “Before Public Choice,” because he freely agrees with two of my main complaints.

Complaint #1: Contractarianism doesn’t even try to discover moral truth; instead, it is a just-so story designed to rationalize the status quo.

Here’s Buchanan:

To an extent, at least, a “science” exists for the purpose of providing psychologically satisfying explanations of what men commonly observe around them.  Presumably we “feel better” when we possess some explanatory framework or model that allows us to classify and interpret disparate sense perceptions… The contract theory of the state, in all its manifestations, can be defended on such grounds.  It is important for sociopolitical order and tranquility that ordinary men explain to themselves the working of government process in models that conceptually take their bases in cooperative instead of noncooperative behavior.  Admittedly and unabashedly, the contract theory serves, in this sense, a purpose or objective of rationalization. (emphasis added)

Actually, Buchanan doesn’t just seem uninterested in discovering moral truth.  He seems uninterested in scientific truth as well.  Otherwise, why would he say that the purpose of science is “providing psychologically satisfying explanations,” and not even hint that its purpose might be to discover how the world really works, no matter how “psychologically unsatisfying” it might be?  (Yes, Buchanan says “To an extent, at least…” but this doesn’t get him off the hook for failing even to mention truth-seeking – or science’s tendency to upset people).

Complaint #2: Social contract theory is a myth.  There never was, and never will be, a unanimous contract between millions of randomly selected strangers.

Here’s Buchanan:

We know, factually and historically, that the “social contract” is mythological, at least in many of its particulars.  Individuals did not come together in some original position and mutually agree on the rules of social intercourse.  And even if they had done so at some time in history, their decisions could hardly be considered to be contractually binding on all of us who have come behind.   We cannot start anew.  We can either accept the political universe or try to change it.  The question reduces to one of determining the criteria for change.

The next clause floored me:

When and if we fully recognize that the contract is a myth designed in part to rationalize existing institutional structures of society…

It normal discourse, calling a moral theory “a myth designed in part to rationalize existing institutional structures of society” is a harsh criticism.  But that’s what Buchanan thinks about his own position.

Now if he went on to argue that the “existing institutional structures of society” are great, yet fragile – so fragile that only a Noble Lie can save them, I could begin to understand Buchanan’s contractarianism.   But even then, I’d have to wonder: Aren’t there any better Noble Lies around?  How about, say, “All of the world’s great religions agree that our institutions are the best”?