Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Wicksell's Unaminity Rule: Buchanan's Dominance Considered

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Wicksell's Unaminity Rule: Buchanan's Dominance Considered

Article excerpt



KNUT WICKSELL'S PREEMINENT STATUS as an intellectual precursor of modern public economics is well established. He is claimed as the father of vastly different branches of public economics, including public choice, incidence theory, and the Samuelson and Lindahl solutions to the problem of public goods provision. However, the status of Wicksell and his contributions varies dramatically among public economists and significantly different interpretations of his theories exist. In this paper, the two major, modern interpretations of Wicksell's unanimity rule are investigated--those by James Buchanan and Richard Musgrave--as are the sociological and institutional structures in the economics profession that allowed the development of the dominance of Buchanan's interpretation. (1)

The stimulus for this paper derived from the fact that Wicksell's contributions to public economics are neither long past nor agreed upon. The differing interpretations of Wicksell by Buchanan and Musgrave highlight several fundamental issues and controversies about the objectives, goals, and methodologies in the field of public economics. Each interpreter engages in a process of rational reconstruction, which involves the removal or addition of elements from the author's original work. In this sense, the extent of the reconstruction is less important than how the interpreter contributes to current dialogue in economics. Thus, since it is fundamentally irresolvable to determine what Wicksell "really" meant, it becomes important to examine the dissemination and transmission of Wicksell's ideas in modern public economics, as well as the use of the ideas by those who followed.

Despite the multiple interpretations in the public economics literature, Buchanan's interpretation has come to dominate. Reisman states: "No person who reads Wicksell having read Buchanan can fail to be impressed by the similarities between the two authors" (1990: 4). One historian of public finance has concluded that Wicksell carried more influence over Buchanan than Musgrave (Hansjurgens 2000). Hennipman (1982) finds aspects of Wicksell's work consistent with both Buchanan's and Musgrave's interpretations but concludes that Wicksellian justice and Pareto efficiency are basically equivalent, hence providing additional support for Buchanan's position. And Smith states that it was "Buchanan (1959) who, almost alone among modern scholars, has examined and extended Wicksell's ideas on public choice" (1977: 1126n). All of these authors indicate the close connection in the literature between Buchanan and Wicksell, identifying Buchanan as the legitimate heir of Wicksell. However, it is not clear that this should be the case, given the alternative interpretations and the stature of their authors.

Further, one cannot merely say that Buchanan's interpretation dominates the economics literature because he is right "Right" requires criteria for judgment, as well as some process that creates the criteria. Buchanan's voluminous scholarship and number of students has contributed to the linking of his work and Wicksell's. These factors, combined with the particular ideological emphasis of public choice economics within the broader scope of the Chicago School tradition, defined a critical role for Wicksell to act as the forefather of "conservative" public economics. Hence, understanding why Buchanan's interpretation of Wicksell's unanimity rule dominates involves aspects of both the intellectual and the social history of the economics discipline.

This paper is divided into five sections. In the second section, the two major interpretations of Wicksell's unanimity rule are discussed and summarized. In the third section, citation analysis demonstrates the dominance of Buchanan's interpretation. In the fourth section, I look at the causal mechanisms that diffuse frames of understanding in an attempt to understand how Buchanan's interpretation has come to dominate. …

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