Two contemporary books of political economy and political philosophy that any student of public affairs must absolutely read are Anthony de Jasay’s The State and James Buchanan’s Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative. De Jasay defined himself as both an anarchist and a (classical) liberal; I have suggested that “conservative anarchist” might be a better description, but perhaps it should be “conservative-liberal anarchist.” Buchanan, a man of the Enlightenment, was squarely a (classical) liberal, but not an anarchist.

I review Buchanan’s Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative in the current (Spring 2022) issue of Regulation. I explain:

Buchanan was a radical liberal, but he was not an anarchist. He believed that a limited government and the rule of law are necessary for the maintenance of a free society. The more men are angels (to use Madison’s terms) — that is, the more they follow an ethics of reciprocity — the less government is needed. The less ethical they are, the more they need government (up to the breaking point where the politicization of everything reduces both public and private morality). Private ethics and government controls are thus substitutes. Perhaps libertarians (including the present author) have tended to underestimate the importance of private ethics and to reject notions of fairness too easily.

One major point on which Buchanan and de Jasay agreed is that there is no “public interest” defined in a utilitarian way, that is, by comparing and adding utility across individuals as cost-benefit analysis aims to do. In my review, I highlight Buchanan’s point as follows:

The idea of a general interest individually defined illustrates his constant striving to define all values only in terms of individual values, with all individuals being equal. Nobody can define values for others; only the consent of all individuals is acceptable. In this approach, the arbitrary aggregation of individual utility into some concept of social welfare can only produce an arbitrarily defined “public interest.” …

He persuasively argues that only such an integrating normative ideology can win against the soul or “animating principle” of socialism. We must see policy proposals “in the larger context of the constitution of liberty rather than in some pragmatic utilitarian calculus.” We can add that many economists, often brilliant ones, accept simple utilitarianism without reflecting on its philosophical foundations and its implications. They notably ignore that interpersonal utility comparisons — weighing the benefits of some against the costs imposed on others — lack any scientific grounding.