James M. Buchanan on “the relatively absolute absolutes” and “truth judgments” in politics

February, 2021

Perhaps the most important element of James Buchanan’s contribution to constitutional economics is his differentiation between pre- and post-constitutional levels of decision-making. At first glance, a tension may appear between those two levels of analysis. In one, the rules by which we live are up for debate, allowing us to exercise our creative and imaginative capabilities in constitutional construction. In the other, the rules are viewed as fixed, and we are left simply to treat them as constraints. This paper explores three key elements of Buchanan’s thought that allow him to navigate successfully between the two levels. The first is the importance of “the relatively absolute absolute”, a concept learned from his mentor, Frank Knight. The second is Buchanan’s approach to “truth judgments” in politics, and their status in our political discussions. Third, we draw on Buchanan’s insights in his 1959 paper “Positive Economics, Welfare Economics, and Political Economy” to show how political economists should participate in this decision-making process—not as expert philosopher-kings, but as co-equals with their fellow citizens. Finally, we illustrate Buchanan’s system of thought in action by presenting two case studies: Virginia education policy in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 1928 Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Schoene.


Hayek and the Hayekians on the Political Order of a Free People

October, 2020

F. A. Hayek published articles over seven decades and across multiple disciplines. This fact alone suggests the presence of a severe interpretative challenge in understanding Hayek’s work, as Bruce Caldwell (2004) has pointed out. There are the intellectual challenges that Hayek faced throughout his career—methodologically, analytically, and ideologically—and there is the challenge to any scholar who hopes to make sense of Hayek’s work and to discuss his system coherently. How do all the pieces fit together?

Regulating Quack Medicine

March, 2019

Quack medicines were prepackaged, commercially marketed medicinal concoctions brewed from “secret recipes” that often contained powerful drugs. Governmental regulation of them in late nineteenth-century England is heralded as a landmark of public health policy. We argue that it’s instead a landmark of medicinal rent-seeking. We develop a theory of quack medicine regulation in Victorian England according to which health professionals faced growing competition from close substitutes: quack medicine vendors. To protect their rents, health professionals organized, lobbied, and won laws granting them a monopoly over the sale of “poisonous” medicaments, most notably, quack medicines.