The Art of the State, State of the Art
James Buchanan's constitutional political economy is much closer to what the philosophers of classical antiquity called an "art" than to what the philosophers and practitioners of modern times would call a "science". Buchanan has sometimes spoken of the scientifically-minded statistical endeavors of modern social science pejoratively as "proving that water flows downhill". Nevertheless, Buchanan would think of himself as "slipping down the hill" if he ever accepted the anti-empiricism and a priori methods of Ludwig von Mieses and some of the more extreme Austrian economists. There is empirical content in economics but it is more or less as trivial as the empirical content of insights like "water flows downhill".
Obviously, within the modern scientific mindset, such views are not exactly regarded as "state of the art". On the other hand, some social philosophers cum philosophers of science like Sir Karl Popper, at least in some of their writings, have come very close to such views. That this is so does not necessarily make those views right. However, it is in itself quite significant that an eminent empiricist philosopher of science like Karl Popper would go that route as well. Still, the basic outlook underlying the Buchanan enterprise is presumably much closer to the concept of an art as endorsed in classical antiquity than it is to any notions in the modern philosophy of science. We are talking about a method which, at least in a way, claims to unite the normative outlook with the descriptive and explanatory one.
To be a political economist in the Buchanan sense does not amount to being objective or impartial -- at least not in the modern sense of those terms. First of all, there is the Strawsonian claim that we always have to adopt a participant's as opposed to an objective attitude towards other human beings if we intend to be political economists in the true sense of that term. We hold other human beings responsible for their deeds, we treat them with resentment or gratitude, but we do not look at them simply as objects of strategic manipulation on whom we try to exert some causal influence as seems fit to reach our ends, aims or goals.
Secondly, there is a stronger normative claim involved. Buchanan clearly goes beyond Kantian norms of inter-individual respect as proposed by the Strawsonian perspective. Like in some of the paradigm arguments of classical antiquity which related the concept of an art to that of the pursuit of the good life Buchanan, without using the term "art", as a matter of fact treats political economy in general and constitutional political economy in particular as if they were arts in the classical sense. Even though Buchanan has frequently stated that he does not aspire to "save the world", he nevertheless is firmly located in the camp of those economists who intend "to make the world a better place". At least politically the world is a good place if individuals can pursue their own projects of the good life. This is the liberal element in Buchanan. But there is a communitarian element involved, too. That the pursuit of the good life should take place under conditions of inter-personal respect is a and perhaps the only genuinely common project.
The acceptance of this common project is presupposed as a tacit value premise guiding the whole enterprise of Buchanan-type political philosophy and political economy. He is quite willing to accept that not all share his vision or creed yet in the last resort he is only talking to those who do. This has a quasi-religious ring to it. But, clearly, Buchanan does not conceive of himself as a preacher, nor does he intend to become one of those quasi-religious "teachers" whose "teachings" become important simply because they originate from the "master". In a more moderate sense of the term "teaching", it would not be a mistake, however, to describe Buchanan's intentions as "teaching the art of politics".
Buchananīs art of politics, like any other art in the classical sense of that term, is concerned with "the good life". Contrary to the classical teachings of the art of politics, Buchanan does not address any elite of wise or powerful men. He is by no means an advisor to any sort of benevolent despot. The addressee of the advice is rather the citizen or, more precisely, any individual citizen. It is no accident that "The Calculus of Consent" has the subtitle "The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy". We are talking about democracy quite in the sense of the "demos" being the author of politics rather than about majoritarianism.
Whether or not "logic" is the right or rather a misleading term may be left open here. But about the meaning of "constitutional democracy", there cannot be much doubt in this context. We are talking about the people expressing themselves within the limits of their constitution. But we are also talking about "the people" as author of their constitution. At least conceptually and ideally, Buchanan addresses everyone with his teachings in constitutional political economy. Each and every individual in her/his capacity as a citizen needs to know about the art of the state or about framing a state such that the good life becomes viable for the citizens of that state. Political economy is this art, not the maximization of a welfare functional or something like this.
As is obvious from the preceding remarks, the art of the state is a very old one. Aristotle would be the classical proponent and Adam Smith, arguably, the most important modern one. Even though some cautionary remarks might be in order here, Macchiavelli and Hobbes would be members of the more scientifically-minded group of political theorists who adopt a more or less objective attitude. They can well suggest hypothetical imperatives of prudent behavior. However, their suggestions are, in the last resort, neutral or open to the several purposes individuals might have. As opposed to the former the latter theorists are not "artists" in the sense of being bound to some overreaching values.
As far as certain fundamental ingredients of the good life in a polity are concerned, the Buchanan enterprise has never been simply neutral or an all-purpose list of technological norms relating means to any ("given") ends whatsoever. Buchanan-type political economy has its own constitution that imposes constraints on what is admissible. It is an art which is in itself bounded to certain ends, aims or values. Among those ends, aims or values, norms of inter-individual respect and a general aversion to any form of coercion play a most prominent role. And insisting on agreement is the way to express these convictions.
Like in medicine which is an art guided by the individual weal of the patient, political economy must be guided by some notion of the commonweal. And the analogy between medicine and political economy goes even further. For, like in medicine where the doctor is not supposed to impose his own specific values on the patient, in political economy, the political economist is not supposed to impose his own values on the community at large. As Buchanan says, the political economist is not an "economist who plays God". One might, in fact, in part answer the famous question, which happens to be the title of one of his most widely read papers, "What Should Economists Do?" by saying that "economists should not play God".
This is not to say, however, that the Buchanan-type of political economist would lend his advice to the pursuit of any values whatsoever. Political economy is not about getting one's way unboundedly, but rather about getting one's way within limits. On the ultimate justificatory level, a concept of bounded rationality is operative. For the rational pursuit of aims, ends or values of individuals is always bounded to the fundamental values of inter-personal respect. The norm of respecting other individuals on equal terms is constitutive for Buchanan-type political economy in general and constitutional political economy in particular. All arguments are constrained or bounded by norms of inter-individual respect. On the level of theory formation, constitutional political economy is in no meaningful sense of that term "value-free". It is rather bound to values like not imposing values on others, not even looking for means to that end. It is bound to letting others engage in their own pursuit of happiness, minimizing coercion and maximizing the independence and autonomy of each and every single individual as towards others while facilitating inter-individual co-operation in mutually-agreeable acts of bilateral or multilateral trade.
These are all values and, for that matter, liberal values in the classical sense of the term "liberal". Since Buchanan obviously sensed out early on in his career that rendering such values constitutive for an allegedly "scientific" endeavor was not exactly in-line with the rather positivist spirit of modern science and, in particular, of the science of his time, he simply attempted to fit it into the modern mindset anyway. For me, this explains why Buchanan in his more unguarded moments tends to argue as if committing the rather obvious blunder of assuming that meta-ethical non-cognitivism implies material norms of inter-individual respect as expressed by his insistence on the norm of agreement. But the meta-ethical thesis that we cannot know what is right or wrong normatively in the same sense in which we can tell right from wrong in the realm of facts is itself a "descriptive" thesis about facts. It is not in itself normative and, therefore, cannot imply a norm if only for the simple Humean reason that there is a gap between "is" and "ought" (the Prior-Mavrodes argument not being relevant here). Moreover, giving it second thought, the argument is not even persuasive on a systematic level. For, in particular, if it is not possible to know what is right or wrong independent of aims, ends or values which must be presupposed, why not simply go with one's own aims, ends or values and pursue them no matter what, rather than pursue them within limits as imposed by norms of inter-individual respect?
The person who does not believe in objective value judgements has any reason to impose her or his own subjective views on others. Within a purely subjectivist framework exerting an externality on others is fine for the actor as long as the actor can get away with it.
The normative presumptions of constitutional political economy in the Buchanan sense of that term cannot be justified on the basis of some epistemological thesis that would reject the scientific status of ultimate value judgments. The conclusion clearly is that Buchanan-type constitutional political economy is more an art in the classical philosophical sense than a scientific endeavor of the positivist kind. It is neither the same thing as non-practical science -- empirical or theoretical -- nor is it practical in the narrow sense of modern so-called applied sciences like engineering. -- But is the art of the state state of the art?
Within the modern scientific mindset, engaging in an art is clearly not state of the art. Even in the applied sciences, we are drifting away from the notion of an art. For example, in medicine, in which -- at least officially -- some of the old values are supported, they are eroding in practice; good medicine is no longer defined independently of the patient's specific or particular aims, ends or values. The doctor's role is increasingly reduced to that of an auxiliary who is subservient to the arbitrary wishes of patients. With respect to medicine, one might think that this is as it should be. And I am quite tempted to think that way. With respect to political economy, I am much more reluctant. There seems to be something wrong with the notion that the political economist can counsel both the dictator or tyrant and/or the citizens who desire to organize themselves to their mutual advantage. I think that Buchananīs art of the state is state of the art exactly because he went against the current of the times and defined what the state of the art is. A noble achievement, indeed.