Deciding How to Decide
By Amy Willis
Many regard the US Constitution as one of the greatest successes in history. But is it time for a change? And if so, how? In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes back Mike Munger (for his 40th appearance!!!) to talk about changing constitutions, doing without them altogether, writing one, and whether they’re important.
The conversation begins with Munger offering a general description of the role constitutions play in public choice theory, paying particular attention to Buchanan and Tullock’s landmark work, The Calculus of Consent. The conversation between Munger and Roberts covers a lot of ground, though the focus is Munger’s insistence on the need for rules about rules. You’ll find a lot of related content in Mike’s earlier conversation with Russ about his book (co-authored with Kevin Munger), Choosing in Groups.
For all of you out there who abhorred group projects in school, I think you’ll empathize. It’s hard to come to agreement- especially unanimous agreement- in a large group. And if that “group” is the whole country… Well, you see where I’m going. So let’s hear what you have to say about this episode. Share your thoughts with us here, or use the prompts below to start you own conversation offline. Either way, thanks for helping us keep the conversation alive.
1- How did Knut Wicksell influence James Buchanan‘s early work, and what was Buchanan’s later objection to Wicksell? To borrow Russ’ characterization, when you’re making rules that will impact a group, what can you do about The Jerk, who plans to be a free-rider? (And remember, according to Munger, The Jerk may not necessarily be a jerk…)
2- Munger introduces a famous question posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘How can it be said that a man is both free and yet bound by wills not his own?’ How does Munger suggest Buchanan and Tullock answered this question, and what does it tell us about what constitutes consent? If consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for coercion, what else is needed to justify it? Is there really such a thing as tacit consent?
3- What are Buchanan’s Relatively Absolute Absolutes, and how do they privilege the status quo? Why does Munger regard this as the weakest part of Buchanan’s theory? What are we to do about Relatively Absolute Absolutes that are bad– like racism or patriarchy?
4- How did Buchanan and Tullock’s feelings about the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence change over the course of their careers, according to Munger? Why does Munger suggest that the Founding Fathers were lucky to have had the failure of the Articles of Confederation?
5- So… should the US have a new constitutional convention? Why or why not? Why does Munger call this “one of the terrible-est ideas,” and to what extent has he convinced you?