… is from pages 291 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s profound 1991 essay “The Foundations of Normative Individualism,” as this essay is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty (1999); in this essay, Buchanan challenges the justification for free markets that rests upon the claim that each individual has a “utility function” that he or she knows better than any third-party or third-parties, including government officials, how to “maximize”; Buchanan calls this common justification for free markets and individualism “the epistemic defense of individualism”; while not denying that each individual generally knows his or her preferences better than do third-parties, Buchanan recognizes – as does the 2017 economics Nobel laureate Richard Thaler – that in practice individuals often do make choices that can be reasonably judged to be ‘irrational’ if the premise is accepted that each individual is a machine supposedly programmed to “maximize” his or her independently existing “utility function”:
The alternative philosophical foundations for normative individualism, and for the structure of institutions that allow the exercise of voluntary choice, carry quite different implications for individual responsibility [than are carried by the epistemic defense of individualism]. The vulnerability of the epistemic defense of individualism to demonstration of incompetence on the part of some members of the political community lends itself readily to politicized corrections of such incompetence. Regardless of the institutional structure, which may itself reflect a generalized acceptance of normative individualism, the elite may express concern for those who do not demonstrate the capacity of knowing what is really best for themselves, in the selection of either means or ends. The way is open for the modern welfare states, which combine elements of epistemic individualism wit the elitism of those who defend the institution of human slavery. The normative individualist whose ontology is subjectivists operates on the presumption that, by their very being as individuals. members of humankind are and must be treated as responsible for their own choices. Individuals are not to be “protected from their own folly,” even if this basic stance is tempered with ordinary compassion.
DBx: Children and severely mentally handicapped individuals aside, each person chooses what he or she chooses because he or she chooses in that way. Period. As Buchanan says, each adult human being ought to be treated as sovereign over himself or herself. (If Smith isn’t treated as sovereign over himself, then Jones must exercise sovereignty over both herself and over Smith. What is the normative justification for such an arrangement?) This sovereignty, of course, entails the freedom of each individual to choose to enter into contracts and other arrangements under which he or she voluntarily agrees to live by certain rules that constrain his or her actions.
On Buchanan’s normative foundation for individualism, the case for government paternalism – be it “nudging” or ‘forcing’ – is rejected. I am my own keeper, and whether or not I keep myself wisely or foolishly – by your standards or even by my own – is none of your business. You, of course, enjoy the same freedom from any arrogance that I might wish to inflict upon you.