August, 2018

Buchanan's Liberal Theory of Political Economy

  • Richard Wagner

    Distinguished Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics
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What does it even mean to identify and explore a tension within a scholar’s work? The range of explanations for the presence of tensions, and the consequences that might (or might not) flow from those different types, is covered by the preliminary remarks to Wagner’s essay. Tensions may be unrecognized problems, incoherence, or inconsistency problematic for an argument; but this does not exhaust the possibilities. They could reflect shifts in thought or, more fundamentally, dialectical elements, by nature refractory to treatment through simple, definitive assertions. Wagner discusses the use of aggregates in Buchanan’s treatment of the burden of public debt as an instance of a contradictory, problematic tension in Buchanan’s work. A contrasting, dialectic tension arises between two opposing visions of political society, one “sentimental,” resting on the productive
potential of mutually coordinated individuals, and one “muscular,” in which strife plays a dominant role in human affairs. Buchanan’s ebb and flow between these two visions is a reflection of the liberal project’s uncertain relationship with the political more generally.