James Buchanan: Market Analysis Should Be Used on Politics

By Silk, Leonard | THE JOURNAL RECORD, November 21, 1986 | Go to article overview

James Buchanan: Market Analysis Should Be Used on Politics


Silk, Leonard, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK - Prof. James M. Buchanan of George Mason University, this year's winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, argues that politics can be subjected to the same analysis that economists apply to markets, since individuals in both realms essentially seek to serve their own interests, rather than those of society.

This approach to politics is not unique to Buchanan. Indeed, an earlier winner of the economics prize, Prof. Herbert Simon of Carnegie-Mellon University, holds that corporate actions are shaped by the personal interests of high-level executives, not just by the assumed profit-maximizing objectives of the corporation.

It makes a big difference in understanding corporate behavior to focus on the complex - and sometimes conflicting - aims of individual executives, board members or stockholders, rather than treat the corporation as though it were an organic being with decision-making powers of its own.

The same holds for the state.

Is this way of analyzing political or corporate behavior value-free or does it imply a moral judgment? Throughout his career, Buchanan has tried to be objective and ``positive'' and to avoid moralizing. In recent years, however, he has become increasingly concerned with moral issues; he describes the ``observed behavior'' of the modern American as ``excessively self-interested.''

He is afraid that moral constraints, essential to a healthy and effective society, are breaking down. He contends that the huge increase in the nation's population, its mobility, urbanization, the spread of national markets, the politicizing of more and more realms of social life, and the erosion of the family, religion and the law are undermining the communal basis of morality.

As a result, he believes that ``Homo economicus'' - the self-seeking economic man of the textbooks - has assumed the dominant role in the real world, endangering the community.

What can be done about it? Buchanan would try to build greater competition into institutions to restrain the corrupt or wasteful use of power. In all countries, whether nominally capitalist or Socialist, one-party governments are far more likely to grow corrupt and inefficient than those subject to political opposition. …

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