James Buchanan on the Nature of Choice: Ontology, Artifactual man, and the Constitutional Moment in Political Economy
22 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2019
Date Written: June 18, 2019
Historians of economic thought are paying greater attention to issues of social ontology (that is, to the assumptions that economists make about the nature of social reality). In this paper, we contribute to this burgeoning literature by exploring the hitherto neglected way in which James Buchanan invoked ontological considerations, concerning in particular the nature of human choice, both in criticizing neoclassical economics and also in setting out his own contributions to constitutional political economy. We focus on Buchanan’s account of man as an artifactual being who has the capacity to choose the kind of person he wishes to become, in particular by selecting the kind of preferences he wishes to have and the kinds of rules under which he wishes to live. We discuss how Buchanan’s thinking on this issue was shaped by his mentor Frank Knight and by the work of British economist G.L.S. Shackle. We then explain why Buchanan was at pains explicitly to describe his argument as ontological in nature. Finally, we contend that Buchanan’s approach would have benefited from further ontological elaboration, in two ways: (i) first, because his arguments would have been stronger had he said more about the attributes of the human agent that help to secure their engagement in thinking creatively about themselves and the rules of society (‘the constitutional moment’); and (ii) second because his account would benefit from a deeper discussion of the interplay between human agency and social structure, especially with regard to the question of which structures might constrain or facilitate creative choices of the kind by which he set such great store.
Keywords: Buchanan, social ontology, choice, constitutional economics, identity, uncertainty, capabilities, institutions, social rules, institutions
JEL Classification: B2, B21, B25, B3, B30, B31, B4, B40, B41, B5, B50, B53
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation