The Calculus of Consent and Rawls

by Gene Callahan

I have a confession to make: I’m currently reading The Calculus of Consent for the first time. I thought it might be interesting and useful to post some of my thoughts on the book here. (And, please note, I’m posting to a blog, not writing a research paper — I am not doing a literature review to see if someone else has noted similar thoughts at some point.) First of all, consider this passage:

“For individual decisions on constitutional questions to be combined, some rules must be laid down; but, if so, who chooses these rules? And so on. We prefer to put this issue aside and to assume, without elaboration, that at the ultimate stage, which we shall call the constitutional, the rule unanimity holds… Recall that we try only to analyze the calculus of the utility-maximizing individual who is confronted with the constitutional problem. Essential to the analysisis the presumption that the individual is uncertain as to what his own precise role will be in any one of the whole chain of later collective choices that will actually have to be made. For this reason he is considered not to have a particular and distinguishable interest separate and aprt from his fellows. This is not to suggest that he will act contrary to his own interests; but the individual will not find it advantageous to vote for rules that may promote sectional, class, or group interests because, by presupposition, he is unable to predict the role that he will be playing in the actual collective decision-making process at any particular time in the future” (1965 paperback edition, pp. 77-78).

Isn’t this a pretty good statement of Rawls “veil of ignorance,” setting out his research project almost a decade before he launched it?

However, Rawls is somewhat dismissive of Buchanan and Tullock’s contribution to his project:

“It is important to distinguish the four-stage sequence and its conception of a constitutional convention from the kind of view of constitutional choice found in social theory and exemplified by… The Calculus of Consent… The aim [of my project] is to characterize a just constitution and not ascertain which sort of constitution would be adopted, or acquiesced in, under more or less realistic (though simplified) assumptions about political life, much less on individualistic assumptions of the kind characteristic of economic theory” (A Theory of Justice, 1971, p. 173).

Now, there is a difference here, and it highlights a weakness in Buchanan and Tullock — they consider ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ to be the “prodigal offspring of political economy” (p. v), apparently not realizing that politics predates political economy as a science by some two millenia, and thereby truncating their analysis so that it ignores issues of justice, which are the essence of classical political theory — but, nevertheless, I see a remarkable similarity in the rationalist style of approach to constitutional questions being adopted, most specifically in the adoption of the idea of the “plain vanilla individual” choosing in total ignorance of his societal role.

So, did Buchanan and Tullock give Rawls his research agenda?

10 thoughts on “The Calculus of Consent and Rawls

  1. No, but Buchanan and Rawls corresponded for several decades, some of which preceded Theory and Calculus. Rawls was always concerned with a moral contract, something over and above a rational one, which was in part why he was dissatisfied with Buchanan’s work.

  2. Well, Kevin, your response leaves me puzzled. Yes, as I already wrote, Rawls was concerned with moral theory but B&T were concerned with rational choice theory. But my question was, nevertheless, was Rawls inspired by B&T’s “veil of ignorance” formulation? You’re assertion that Buchanan and Rawls corresponded “for several decades, some of which preceded Theory and Calculus,” seems to support, not negate, my imagined influence. But, furthermore, given the ages of Rawls and Buchanan, just how many of those “decades” of correspondence were prior to 1962?

  3. Gene, what I meant to suggest is that Rawls and Buchanan learned from each other. But also, there are lots of reasons to suppose that the veil came from elsewhere. Something like it is in Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Justice (it is really just a looser version of the reasoning of pure noumena) and John Harsanyi here: Harsanyi, John C. 1953. Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-Taking. Journal of Political Economy 61: 453-5.

    Further, he’s got the idea here:

    “Justice as Fairness.” Journal of Philosophy (October 24, 1957), 54(22):653-662.

    And something approaching it here:

    “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics.” Philosophical Review (April 1951), 60(2):177-197.

    Also, I have a weird view that something like it is in his very early work in neo-orthodox protestant theology. But that is far more tendentious, given that almost no one has read it.

    As for the ‘decades’ I meant that their correspondence lasted for decades – between the 40s and the 70s, as I understand it. They knew each other for a VERY long time. But I have heard it said by some of Rawls’s students that Rawls’s Hegelianism (people don’t understand how Hegelian Rawls is, really) moved him sharply away from rat. choice models of justice eventually.

    Anyway, so those are lots of reasons to think that Buchanan didn’t influence Rawls. A more plausible view is that both were working in the same vicinity, trying to convert, as Rawls says, a justificatory problem into a deliberative problem. Both want to use the Pareto criterion and both want to avoid indeterminacy in picking a point on the frontier using a principle. Rawls picks the difference principle.

    So more of my two cents. I hope this helps.

  4. Gene,
    I definitely think it’s worth pursuing the similarities between B&T and Rawls – I think “Limits to Liberty” is more often used as a point of comparison to “Theory of Justice”, so I’d bring that into things.

    Also, the passage in CofC that jumped out at me on first reading is this:

    “We shall argue that, if the costs of organizing decisions voluntarily should be zero, all externalities would be eliminated by voluntary private behaviour of individuals regardless of the initial structure of property rights.”
    Buchanan and Tullock 1962[2001:47] [emphasis in original]

    I’m not sure if the similarities with the Coase Theory have been fully thought through either.

  5. I’m not sure if the similarities with the Coase Theory have been fully thought through either. says:

    “I’m not sure if the similarities with the Coase Theory have been fully thought through either.”

    That’s no surprise, as “The Problem of Social Cost” came out two years earlier.

  6. Thanks, Kevin — very interesting. I lost track of just whose papers were being referenced, however. Who was it who wrote the protestant orthodoxy papers?

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