Quote of the Week

Today, two excerpts from the same section of the book. This should stir up some conversation — my comments are meant to provide some ideas of what could be discussed:

Tullock distinguishes, basically, between the relationship of exchange, which he calls the economic, and the relationship of slavery, which he calls the political. I use bold words here, but I do so deliberately. In its pure or ideal form, the superior-inferior relationship is that of the master and the slave. If the inferior has no alternative means of improving his own well-being other than through pleasing his superior, he is, in fact, a “slave,” pure and simple. This remains true quite independent of the particular institutional constraints that may or may not inhibit the behavior of the superior. It matters not whether the superior can capitalize the human personality of the inferior and market him as an asset. Interestingly enough, the common usage of the word “slavery” refers to an institutional structure in which exchange was a dominant relationship, In other words, to the social scientist at any rate, the mention of “slavery” calls to mind the exchange process, with the things exchanged being “slaves.” The word itself does not particularize the relationship between master and slave at all.

— James M. Buchanan, in the foreword to Gordon Tullock, Bureaucracy (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 2005), p. 7.

Keep in mind that the realm of the political, going on these definitions, extends to the organization of a firm. Buchanan gives meaning, most likely unintentionally, to the concept of “wage slavery.”

Tullock’s distinction here can also be useful in discussing an age-old philosophical dilemma. When is a man confronted with a free choice? The traveler’s choice between giving up his purse and death, as offered to him by a highwayman, is, in reality, no choice at all. Yet philosophers have found it difficult to define explicitly the line that divides situations into categories of free and unfree or coerced choices. One approach to a possible classification here lies in the extent to which individual response to an apparent choice situation might be predicted by an external observer. If, in fact, the specific action of the individual, confronted with an apparent choice, is predictable within narrow limits, no effective choosing or deciding process could take place. By comparison, if the individual response is not predictable with a high degree of probability, choice can be defined as being effectively free. By implication, Tullock’s analysis would suggest that individual action in a political relationship might be somewhat more predictable than individual action in the economic relationship because of the simple fact that, in the latter, there exists alternatives. If this implication is correctly drawn, the possibilities of developing a predictive “science” of “politics”would seem to be inherently greater than those of developing a science of economics.

— pp. 8–9.

Buchanan goes on to describe Tullock’s method, where he wants to appeal to the reader’s experience and intuition. My experience and intuition disagrees with Tullock, though. I don’t share this view of modern bureaucracy, and I don’t think the term “slavery” (as used by Buchanan) captures how modern hierarchical organizations work. Bureaucracies come against the same knowledge problem that affects markets, and so a good bureaucracy is one in which there is some process by which local agents have enough freedom of choice to exploit local knowledge and by which this local knowledge is delivered by proxy to others who may need it.

As it turns out, bureaucracies often do work like this, both within firms and within larger hierarchy organizations, such as government bureaus. Take the high school teacher, for example; he or she is afforded considerable, although not absolute, liberty in determining how to teach the students. Similarly, political agents often enjoy quite a bit of autonomy when it comes to carrying out daily activities at the “workplace” — while not a perfect example, think of how political agents do what they do in the show House of Cards. There are constraints in choice, often based on “orders from above,” but bureaucratic agents are rarely “slaves” in the sense of having only two choices: what your “master” wants you to do and something comparable to death.

Buchanan mentions that the “science of politics” may enjoy more predictive value than the “science of economics,” based on the idea that a political agent’s domain of choice is severely constricted. But, the explanatory power of public choice theory has been questioned. It can’t explain why people vote; it can’t always explain how politicians choose; et cetera. If the critics are right, that erodes the empirical meaning in Buchanan’s and Tullock’s exchange/slavery distinction between the economic and the political, respectively. (Ironically, in Calculus of Consent, Tullock and Buchanan seem to frame the political in the context of exchange.)

Finally, and totally separate from what we’ve discussed so far, Buchanan here seems to give credence to the philosophical position that the choice between accepting the lowest market wage and accepting starving to death is not really a choice at all, and that the laborer in that case truly is a wage slave. What are the normative implications, in the context of justice?

One thought on “Quote of the Week

  1. gcallah

    “Tullock distinguishes, basically, between the relationship of exchange, which he calls the economic, and the relationship of slavery, which he calls the political.”

    This shows what ridiculous things you can say when you ignore 2400 years of political thought.


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