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  • Author or Editor: Marianne Johnson x
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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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The Soul of Classical Political Economy curates ten previously unpublished works by James M. Buchanan. The editorial introductions to these are independently valuable as scholarly works; they shed light on the context in which the papers, essays and letters were written, and draw important connections across Buchanan’s different writings. In this review essay, I consider Buchanan on classical liberalism, Knut Wicksell and the role of the economist in light of these newly available writings. The book and review essay should prove of interest not only to historians of economics, but also to scholars and economists generally, as Buchanan’s views on the classical tradition provide important philosophical support for the entire neoliberal enterprise, particularly as it relates to public policy, public economics and public choice.

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