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?