We recently marked the 60th anniversary of the book that established the field of public choice – The Calculus of Consent by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. It was also the 30th anniversary of Elinor Ostrom et al’s ‘Covenants with and without a sword’, in which she demonstrated the capacity of individuals for self-governance without submission to an external authority. This article considers these two foundational works as a starting point from which to explore the intellectual tradition of ‘democratic optimism’ in public choice. The Buchanan/Ostrom legacy is an unshakable faith in the capacity of individuals for self-governance, a significant departure from more orthodox thinking that presumed the necessity of a social planner to oversee, coordinate and enforce collective actions. Their work also illustrates the importance of questioning the assumptions of economic models and modes of thought. Examination of antecedent assumptions is useful not only for understanding the depth and complexity of economic and political choices, but also for thinking about the history of the economics discipline, the viability of research programmes and the ‘danger of self-evident truths’.
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