New Economist

Karl Marx and James M. Buchanan are literally opposed on paper. But sometimes appearances are misleading while reality is otherwise. What if the American liberal and the German philosopher, economist and thinker were closer than we all thought?

One may know that young James M. Buchanan was a proud socialist and thus an expert of Marx and his work. Yet he followed Frank Knight's lectures and abandoned his former ideals to defend liberalism. He later wrote - along with Gordon Tullock - one of the most important books of the 20th century in economics: The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. This book paved the way for others to create a new school of thought, which is known as Public Choice or Virginia school of political economy.

It is obvious while reading this book that the authors wanted to put Marx away from their analysis. Indeed, in the second chapter called "The individualistic postulate", the authors write that, for their analysis, they "reject any theory or conception of the collectivity which embodies the exploitation of a ruled by a ruling class" which "includes the Marxist vision". That is very explicit. These economists don't want to be assimilated with the Marxist ideology, to say the least. Saying that, we understand that the organic vision of the society is prohibited here simply because "it seems futile to talk seriously of a "theory" of constitutions in a society other than that which is composed of free individuals - at least free in the sense that deliberate political exploitation is absent".

Buchanan and Tullock openly opposed their work to the Marxist's one. Even more so looking at their methodology: they use the famous paradigm of the methodological individualism notably theorized by Raymond Boudon. This paradigm derives from different thinking movements, as shown by Mircea Vultur in his paper: John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism, Talcott Parsons's interactionism, Karl Popper's rationality principle, Friedrich von Hayek's subjectivism and Vilfredo Pareto's sociological work. In a more direct way, methodological individualism means that the unity of analysis is the individual, his actions and repercussions in the society.

Therefore, this atomistic view is completely different from the one used by Karl Marx. Indeed the German thinker used to analyze the society through a holistic approach that considers the entire society as a unity of analysis, that is groups of individuals, their actions and repercussions on the individuals. Here we have two different prisms.

With that said, we might think that Marx and Buchanan are effectively separated by a whole world. But that's for the methodology. In fact, both economists aim at the same thing: finding and theorizing the ultimate society. In the Calculus of Consent, Buchanan and Tullock's objective is to find the constitutional structure that could maximize the efficiency for every individuals of the society. We can find the term "good society" in the title of the twentieth chapter - "The politics of the good society". But if we can find the good society, the perfect institutions, why would people ever want to change it? When the most efficient society will be reached, it will be the very last one we know.

That fact actually reminds us about the end of the History preached by Karl Marx ! Indeed, the Marxist theory is anchored in historicism, which means that the society takes several forms, for example from feudalism to capitalism, ending with communism, which would mark the end of the history, the end of this series of transformations.

Of course the end differs from Marx to Buchanan but literally these two thinkers do theorize the very same thing : a perfect society from which we will never derive. In fact that can also remind us of the famous stationary state of David Ricardo - who was well considered by Marx himself -and, mainly, John Stuart Mill. The stationary State is the idea for some classical authors that our society will someday stop growing, giving birth to an equilibrium in which people would have to remain alive with the only things they have. Mill went further, imagining a future in which technological and progress would lead society to a long-run stationary state with a stable population and a high standard of living. That's another idea of the end of the History.

As we just saw, all those thinkers from Ricardo to Mill, Marx or Buchanan have the same idea about the fact that our history, the transformation of our societies will come to an end. What if all the economists through history belonged to the same family? What if the only difference between them was only methodological or ideological issues?

Buchanan, after quitting socialism did his very best to criticize every socialist and Marxist theory, telling that it was all wrong but in fact it is a paradox that his work leads to a similar end. That's for us not to discredit Buchanan's work or to say that Buchanan was a Marxist or that Marx was a liberal. What we ought to say is that sometimes, critics and controversies may be easily discredited and that even if we think that there is a lot of differences between two authors, we can always find some common points that reminds us that we can't monopolize economics or thought like spoiled children.

Julien Grandjean


Buchanan, James, M. & Tullock, Gordon. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999.

Vultur,  Mircea.   "Raymond  Boudon et le paradigme de l'individualisme methodologique", Aspects sociologiques, Vol. 6, no 1, DECEMBRE 1997, pp. 30-37.


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