Jim Buchanan’s Own Favorite Quotations

July 27, 2017
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On pages 127 through 146 of his 1992 autobiography, Better than Plowing, Jim Buchanan shares with us a number of quotations that, throughout his life, he wrote in a personal journal.  As Art Carden, Vincent Geloso, and Phil Magness point out, nowhere on this list are John C. Calhoun or Donald Davidson.  But among Buchanan’s quotations is this one from David Hume’s essay “On the Independency of Parliament”; I quote it here exactly as it is quoted on page 133 of Better than Plowing:

DAVID HUME: [It is] a just political maxim that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact . . . men are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and will go to greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned.  Honour is a great check on mankind: But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed; since a man is sure to be approved by his own party . . . and he soon learns to despise the clamour of adversaries.

This passage from Hume anticipates a large chunk of the core of modern public-choice scholarship: individuals do not become angelic when acting politically, even in democratic societies; prudence in establishing government power is wise; the same individuals act differently in different institutional settings because the personal costs and benefits of action differ across different settings.

So does Nancy MacLean accuse Hume of unjustly attributing evil motives to people that Hume does not know?  (She accuses Jim Buchanan of this offense.)  Does MacLean suppose that Hume, in counseling prudent suspicion of political activities, was under the spell, or on the payroll, of an evil oligarch?  (She accuses Jim Buchanan of this offense.)

Here’s yet another question that Nancy MacLean should be held to answer should she ever agree to offer a substantive defense of her book: Why accuse Jim Buchanan of getting his political economy from two people he never mentions – Calhoun and Davidson – rather than from people whom he mentions explicitly, often frequently, and even directly quotes?  What sources of insight, apart from Buchanan’s own writings and of the many writings of scholars who have been inspired by him, has MacLean access to that give her unique insight into Buchanan’s mind?  (Pointing to the 1992 article by Tabarrok and Cowen that shows how some of Calhoun’s writings anticipated some aspects of public choice will not suffice as an answer.  Intellectual history is full of ideas – for example, David Hume’s – that anticipated some aspects of public choice.)

In his list of quotations, Buchanan offers quotations from 52 different thinkers – thinkers as different as Plato and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Some, such as Frank Knight, are quoted more than once, but most are quoted just once.

How many of these thinkers whose thoughts Buchanan saw fit to record in his list of quotations are mentioned in Democracy in Chains?  Six of them: Lord Acton, Thomas Hobbes, Frank Knight, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and Knut Wicksell.  None of the others are even mentioned by MacLean: not Michael Polanyi; not Karl Popper; not Thucydides; not Orwell; not John Adams; not Hume; not any of the 52 but these six.  Odd, that, given that it’s clear from reading these quotations that, as diverse as these quotations are, each and every one of them points in some way toward an identifiable aspect of Buchanan’s scholarship.  And yet when it came time for MacLean to ‘identify’ the chief intellectual influences on Buchanan she ignored most of the people whose thoughts Buchanan saw fit to record on his list of important quotations and instead identified as Buchanan’s muses two men never once mentioned by Buchanan in any of his writings.

MacLean doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  Her book about Buchanan is largely a record of her hallucinations.

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