Buchanan and Anarchism

The economist James Buchanan, who along with Gordon Tullock founded the public choice school of economics, shares with Murray Rothbard a trait rare among his fellow economists. Like Rothbard, he is interested in political philosophy. He doesn’t agree with Rothbard’s anarchism, and I’d like to discuss one of his arguments on this issue. Buchanan rests his case on an odd view of ethics, and this leads him astray.

According to Rothbard, each person is a self-owner and can acquire unowned property through Lockean appropriation. Persons, if they wish, can hire agencies to protect themselves, but a monopoly state cannot justly seize control of defense and protective services and tax people to pay for these services.

Why does Buchanan reject this? The basic problem he finds with this view is that people wouldn’t agree on the boundaries of rights. A Rothbardian world, he thinks, would be chaotic. In “A Contractarian Perspective on Anarchy” (Nomos, vol. 19, Anarchism, [1978]), he says:

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I stated earlier that the primary value premise of individualism is the moral equality of men as men, that no man counts as more than another….The libertarian anarchist accepts this framework, but in a much more restricted application than others who also fall within the individualistic set. The libertarian anarchist applies the moral equality norm in holding that each and every man is equally entitled to have the natural boundaries of his rights respected, regardless of the fact that, among persons, these boundaries may vary widely. If such natural boundaries exist, the contractarian may also use the individual units defined by such limits as the starting point for the complex contractual

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