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Constitutional Principles, Political Economy, and The Teaching of Economics

Summary:
Watch this conversation between Walter Williams and James Buchanan. [embedded content]  A couple things to note.  For Buchanan and Williams the critical issue is constitutional restraints.  Note the point raised about interpret group politics and winning coalitions, this is the point developed in Politics by Principle, Not Interest. And, note how Buchanan views the problems with the Warren Courts are associated with the erosion of constitutional restraints, not in the least bit the content of the arguments for relaxing those constraints.  Buchanan is influenced here by Hume -- and the idea that in designing the institutions of governance all men must be considered as knaves. This is not a description, it is an analytical device deployed to ensure that the structure of governance

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Watch this conversation between Walter Williams and James Buchanan.

 A couple things to note.  For Buchanan and Williams the critical issue is constitutional restraints.  Note the point raised about interpret group politics and winning coalitions, this is the point developed in Politics by Principle, Not Interest. And, note how Buchanan views the problems with the Warren Courts are associated with the erosion of constitutional restraints, not in the least bit the content of the arguments for relaxing those constraints.  Buchanan is influenced here by Hume -- and the idea that in designing the institutions of governance all men must be considered as knaves. This is not a description, it is an analytical device deployed to ensure that the structure of governance is robust against opportunistic behavior with guile (knavery). As I have argued in a paper with Alex Fink, our knavery can come in the form of arrogance and in the form of opportunism, but in both cases the institutions of governance must be structured such to ensure that knaves are held in check.  If not, knavery will run roughshod over our democracy.  We will have "democracy" in name, but either permanent winning coalitions where one group dominates over all over groups, or a war of interest groups pitted against other interest groups in a conflict over the spoils.  In either case, the general population and the general welfare suffers.

What is the economist to do? Note the discussion around the min 24 mark. We are not to presume that we work for benevolent despots and proffer our expert advice.  Nope that doesn't work, that just fuels the rent race as the "experts" join in to form another coalition trying to capture the spoils.  So what are we to do? TEACH and try to REACH the public through our teaching -- not about specifics of public policy, but about the economic way of thinking and about basic principles of economic science.  Note as well Buchanan's reference to Frank Knight, who said that economics was applied common sense, in fact, so easy that you could learn most of what is important in economics in about 30 minutes, but that for whatever reason it takes human beings almost a lifetime to prepare themselves to be ready to learn those important lessons of economics.

HT: Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek for sharing this video today.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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