Buchanan at the American Founding: the constitutional political economy of a republic of equals and unequals
Author: John Meadowcroft
Published in Public Choice (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-020-00801-w
James M. Buchanan cited the American Founding as an important inspiration for his constitutional vision. Buchanan and the Founders shared a belief in the moral equality of persons and a conviction that social order could be built upon a nexus of contract and exchange. The early revolutionaries were inspired by the classical republican ideal of impartial government serving the public interest, but Buchanan and the later Founders did not believe that relying on political actors to pursue the common good would avert tyranny. Buchanan’s insistence on unanimous constitutional agreement highlights the fact that the Constitutional Convention did not obtain the consent of the black Americans who constituted close to one-fifth of the population, but to whom the Founders did not extend the principle of moral equality. Accordingly, Buchanan’s work leads to an appreciation of the Founders as an archetype of the constitutional mentality that he advocated throughout his work, but also to an understanding that the Founding fell short of his ideal of genuinely consensual politics. The practical import of Buchanan’s work therefore is to facilitate the evaluation of real-world politics—in this case, America’s Founding and subsequent political development—and to point the way towards future reforms informed by a constitutional mentality.