by Frank Forman

1999 February 20


There is a sentence in Jim Buchanan's writings that keeps coming back to me, a sentence that captures his life's approach and one that guides and restrains my own endeavors. It is not the first sentence on page one of his magnum opus, The Limits of Liberty, "Those who seek specific descriptions of the 'good society' will not find them here." Nor is it the individualist declaration later on in the paragraph, "We live together because social organization provides the efficient means of achieving our individual objectives and not because society offers us a means of arriving at some transcendental common bliss."

This first sentence is a correct one, but it is a shade disingenuous: no reader of The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan will come away unaware that Buchanan's ideal "good society" will be one far closer to anarchy than to Leviathan, closer indeed to anarchy than the status quo. Why else would he write, "To the individualist, the ideal or utopian world is necessarily anarchistic in some basic philosophical sense" (page 2), even if he follows this observation up with saying that "the anarchist utopia must be acknowledged to hold a lingering if ultimately spurious attractiveness" (page 3)?

And the statement about "transcendental common bliss" is neither something he fully believes nor something that is true. It is good rhetoric against holistic collectivism, but men do aim, sometimes and to some degree, at what is perhaps miscalled collective outcomes. The degree of equality, in one of its many forms, is an emergent outcome of the social process that cannot be characterized as an aim of any individual's actions. Even for Buchanan, "each man counts for one, and that is that" (page 2). Men do care about equality, and they also care about the stock of resources, in nature and in the human gene pool, that their actions effect.

These sentences I remember well and also the one that says, "We start from here, from where we are, and not from some idealized world peopled by beings with a different history and with utopian institutions" (page ix, the first page of the Preface, that is, before page one of the book proper). Buchanan has received much flak for this sentence as supposedly trying to justify the status quo. I've never been entirely satisfied with his answers to his critics: he and they just talk past one another, but even this is not the sentence that keeps coming back at me, much as I remember it vividly, along with the other three I have quoted.

Alas, the key sentence to the man's thoughts isn't in Limits or anywhere else, not as I misremember it. The actual sentence comes from the second page of the Preface to Limits and reads, "As an economist, I am a specialist in contract, and to my fellows a contractarian approach carries its own defense once individual values are accepted as base materials" (page x). I conflated this with another sentence on page one proper, "These limits [staying away from any concerns about transcendental common bliss] offer the individualist a distinct comparative advantage in a positive analysis of social interaction."

I had misremembered the sentence as saying something like, "As a specialist in contract, bargaining, agreements, I can offer my special expertise in helping us start from here and reaching a mutually agreed improvement in our constitution." This is not what he said and not quite the words he would have used, but for me it captures how Buchanan has devoted his life and his energies.

This is Buchanan's best advice, better even than his famous "Don't get it right; get it written." Respect the division of labor, he says. Be for liberty, yes, but don't jam one more book entitled This Is How I Want the World to Be onto our book shelves. Find your expertise, find out how you can best help by doing something different and not duplicative, and get going.

I can't say I have always taken this advice. I, too, have gone on at length about how I myself want the world to be. So the advice remains an ideal, but it is a comfort as well. Let me, much less ably than Jim, try to stimulate discussion, leaving it to others to harangue for reforms. Let them do the work! Besides, there are many more of them than there are of me.

I shall leave it to others in this tribute to Jim Buchanan to detail his many areas of original thought. But for me, that he has remained a specialist in contracts will be his greatest legacy.