- Hardcover: 128 pages
- Publisher: Edward Elgar Pub (January 24, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1845423143
- ISBN-13: 978-1845423148
- Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 6.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,366,665 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism
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`Buchanan's work is widely read and cited by those working within economics and political economy. This excellent book shows that he also has an important contribution to make to political theory. It is to be hoped that it will go some way towards giving Buchanan's work the wider circulation it undoubtedly deserves with this field.' -- John Meadowcroft, Economic Affairs `. . . terrific read. . . The essays are beautifully argued analyses of the philosophical underpinnings of Classical Liberalism, developing arguments from Adam Smith, Hayek and others. Buchanan is a fine and convincing advocate for Classical Liberalism.' -- Ruth Lea, The Business Economist `Buchanan's final essay. . . is a personal, somewhat brooding, discussion of why he has chosen to write this and other works like it over the years. He articulates a vision that classical liberals everywhere can identify with and provides reason enough to read this book.' -- Robert Lawson, Public Choice `Buchanan's readable, insightful work will be of value to students of political philosophy and economic thought. Highly recommended. All collections.' -- M. Steckbeck, Choice
About the Author
The late James M. Buchanan, former Distinguished Professor Emeritus, George Mason University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Advisory General Director, Center for Study of Public Choice, George Mason University, US Recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
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Buchanan, seemingly, wrote this book to reiterate what classical liberalism is, what its conditions are, and how it can be reclaimed. Not as simple as limiting government and letting the market do its thing, Buchanan believes that classical liberalism MUST be accompanied (preceded actually) by attitudes of equality (treating all as equally capable of ordering their affairs), reciprocity (doing to others only what you wouldn't mind them doing to you), and responsibility (acceptance of the idea that government need not be responsible for people's substantive wellbeing. As he (like Gray) is fond of noting, the seeming failure of market economies to flourish in Post-Soviet countries even 15 years after communism's collapse attests to the idea that classical liberalism is something more than markets and minimal government.
Buchanan's best and most pertinent chapter is "The Soul of Classical Liberalism" where he argues that in its zeal to defend against socialism and its ethic, classical liberals have fallen into defending liberalism on consequentialist grounds: it works because it delivers goods better than socialism. This, Buchanan argues, is not a good move because it ignores the biggest of all selling points of liberalism: it leaves individuals free in the sense that all enjoy equal liberty within the confines of a shared morality (of reciprocity) and law. It allows individuals to decide what value to place on what, what life to pursue, and does all of this in a way that socialism simply cannot. Yes, there are other reasons to love classical liberalism, but Buchanan thinks this to be a bigger selling point than consequentialist arguments.
Perhaps the most controversy will be caused by the chapter titled "Classical Liberalism and the Perfectability of Man" where Buchanan depart from Hayekian pessimism (the constrained vision of Sowell's A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, and comes out as an unabashed optimist about the improvability of the human condition. Many classical liberals don't follow this optimism because of its obvious link with totalitarianism (see Berlin's essay "Pursuit of the Ideal" in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays). Buchanan, though, believes that people will live up to ideals like reciprocity and presuming equality in their dealings if they are taught so. (Of course, many classical liberals - myself included - would object that this leads to a very distasteful ethical indoctrination that would most likely be done by the state. John Gray would argue that this is an impermissible privileging of liberal, over other possible, values.)
But Buchanan does make an interesting, albeit sometimes Hobbesian, case that classical liberalism can only flourish when individual attitudes are disposed toward its ethically necessary conditions. He points towards the fissure America and other Western (and previously classical liberal) nations have experienced in these moral conditions (treating others as equals rather than inferiors, dealing fairly with others so they will deal fairly with us, self-reliance) and hints at a possible correlation with these nations slides into statism.
Whether we agree or not - I concur in part and dissent in part - Buchanan's defense of classical liberalism is interesting. He makes the case that classical liberals have put so much emphasis on the market and individualism that they have lost sight of the ethical and, yes, communitarian aspects of classical liberalism as well. It is a truly unique and interesting perspective on classical liberalism and how it differs from its sometimes-cousin, conservatism.
But oh how misleading that message is! As with all that Buchanan writes, this short book is a deep well of insights, creative reflections, and wisdom. In particular, this book is a collection of 12 essays, each written within the past decade - too recently to be included in the 20 volume Collected Works of James M. Buchanan published by Liberty Press.
Although now in his mid-80s, Buchanan's mind and pen are as agile as ever, showing no signs of crustiness or an urge to rest on his (many) laurels. Indeed, despite revisiting a theme that has engaged him for at least three decades, Buchanan's message is fresh.
The theme is simultaneously an ovation for, and a dissent from, F.A. Hayek's effort to ground classical liberalism in the theory of spontaneous order - that is, Hayek's effort to show that the case for individual freedom depends critically upon accepting the undesigned, unintended results of human action. Markets, law, even politics evolve over time in ways that incorporate what conservatives call "the wisdom of the ages." Wholesale efforts to redesign society based on intellectual fancies discard this wisdom and replace it with the inevitably puny and deficient academic models of social engineers. The 20th-century's awful experiment with socialism stands as a premier example of this intellectual arrogance, what Hayek called "the fatal conceit."
Hayek's struggle to expose the errors of social engineering, however, was often mistaken as an apology for conservatism. This mistake so disturbed Hayek that he concluded his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty with a chapter entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." It was a difficult case to make, because Hayek did indeed counsel deference to evolved social institutions even if the rational mind can find no good reason for their existence. The reader of Buchanan's book will learn why Buchanan believes that Hayek went overboard in counseling such deference.
The title of Buchanan's book obviously is inspired by Hayek. And like Hayek - but more clearly than Hayek - Buchanan puts his finger on the chief distinction between conservatives and real, or classical, liberals: only liberals are truly dedicated to the rule of law.
At first this claim sounds odd, given that we today think of conservatives as "law and order" types. But Buchanan and Hayek don't mean by law simply the dictates promulgated by legislatures and regulators. Instead they mean the whole gamut of rules that constrain human behavior, whether or not these are formally promulgated and enforced by government. The true liberal recognizes that law, like products and prices in markets, often evolves unintended from the everyday actions of ordinary people. And the true liberal is unyielding in his insistence that everyone be bound by such laws. Nothing - not social status, skin color, religion, job title, amount of education; nothing - excuses anyone from the law.
Buchanan describes the debate as between followers of Plato and followers of Adam Smith:
Plato had no misgivings about classifying human beings along a hierarchy of superiority. To Plato, some persons are natural slaves; others are natural masters. For Adam Smith, persons are natural equals, and one of his familiar references is to the absence of basic differences between the philosopher and the street porter. [p. 4]
Plato is the conservative (or modern "liberal"); Adam Smith is the true liberal. Plato and his followers naturally believe that society's best and the brightest should have great lee-way in directing the lives of the masses. Adam Smith and his followers, while recognizing that individuals differ from one another along many dimensions, believe that we are all equal in our humanity, with none of our differences justifying the rule of some of us over others of us. When this basic equality of humans is accepted, respect for a strict rule of law follows as a matter of course.
And here, on this point, we can see clearly the true liberal's distinction not only from conservatives but also from modern "liberals." The modern "liberal" fancies himself to be enlightened and caring because he seeks to use government to improve the lives of others even when this involves forcing others to act differently than they freely choose to act. Although the true conservative's motives for constraining others' actions might (or might not!) differ from those of the modern "liberal," at root both conservatives and modern "liberals" disdain and distrust ordinary men and women. True liberals do not.
One result is that true liberals willingly allow peaceful adults do whatever they please. This willingness grows not from the liberal's lack of concern for his fellow man, but from his respect for his fellow man - from the true-liberal's mature recognition that his fellow man is, like himself, an adult with his own unique history, needs, and dreams. And when we treat others as adults, we accord them not only the freedom to pursue whatever peaceful paths they choose, but we also recognize them to be responsible.
The responsible person, of course, neither needs nor seeks the coddling and constraints imposed by the modern welfare-and-nanny state. But because the modern "liberal" believes so ardently that ordinary people must be coddled and constrained if they are to lead decent lives, the conservative roots of the modern "liberal" are exposed: the good and the wise must control the masses.
Variations on this theme of Plato versus Smith run throughout Buchanan's book. Cataloging these themes and their resulting insights here is impossible; they are too numerous and rich for detailed summary - except to say that Buchanan, following Hayek's lead if not his every step, carefully marks out the intellectual territory that the true liberal must defend, not only from overt conservatives but from the camouflaged conservatives who today are called "liberals."
I recommend that you buy - or, at a price of $75, borrow - a copy of this book and savor some of the very best economics scholarship ever penned.