Thrasher and Gaus on the Calculus of Consent

by on November 19, 2017 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Writing for the The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory, political philosophers John Thrasher and Gerald Gaus review Buchanan and Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent:

Calculus advances new methods in an attempt to solve an old problem: the problem of
democratic justification. While democracy claims to be the “rule of the people” in any
actual democratic system we actually find the rule of some people over others. More
formally, the winning coalition in any election is able to impose its authority on the losers.
This is true however large the majority happens to be, and however small the minority is,
unless the vote is unanimous; and even then, there may be an excluded minority of those
who did not or could not vote. Yet at the heart of the democratic ideal is the principle that
all are inherently free and equal, with no natural authority to rule over one another. How
odd then to start from freedom and equality and end with majority coalitions imposing
their policies on minorities merely because they have the numbers to do so. Once we see
this oddity we are confronted with the question: how could the authority of democratic
assemblies over free and equal persons be justified? This is the problem of democratic
justification, a problem that animates Calculus.

…A feature of Calculus typically missed is its optimism. Public choice theory is commonly
characterized as anti-democratic, or as undermining faith in the democratic process
(Barry 1989; Christiano 1996, 2004). Rightly understood though, Calculus is an almost
giddy endorsement of democracy (of a specific form) in the face of what looked like dire
prospects for democratic theory.

1 rayward November 19, 2017 at 7:58 am

A significant minority of people oppose both abortion and gay marriage, and oppose both of them so strongly that other considerations of public policy are ignored during elections. Is it a failure of democracy that abortion and gay marriage are permitted or is it an endorsement of democracy (because they confirm individual liberty and freedom to make a personal choice)? When I was a child growing up in the South, a majority of Southerners opposed integration, and were willing to resort to violence to prevent the federal government from imposing its will on them. Was it a failure of democracy that the federal government imposed integration on a region, the South, that opposed it or is it an endorsement of democracy (because it confirmed individual liberty and freedom for black Americans)? “Rule of the people” subsumes an informed people. Is it a failure of democracy if the people are not informed or misinformed by media with an ax to grind or by a foreign power with subversion in mind? Public choice was developed to protect the people from their own selfishness and ignorance, susceptible as they are to an ever-expanding government promising an endless supply of government-provided benefits. Is it a failure of democracy if people are conditioned, through the media and wealthy elites, to distrust their government or is it an endorsement of democracy (because it permitted those with an ax to grind, and the wealth to grind the ax, to condition the people to distrust their own government)?

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2 So Much For Subtlety November 19, 2017 at 8:39 am

Is it a failure of democracy that abortion and gay marriage are permitted or is it an endorsement of democracy (because they confirm individual liberty and freedom to make a personal choice)?

Remind me again Ray, when the people of America voted for abortion? Because I might have grown up in an alternative reality to you but I am pretty sure that would have been the Supreme Court that invented the idiotic “right” to privacy – a right that only applies to contraception and abortion it seems – over the objections of the American voters. For that matter, Gay marriage would also have been foisted on the people of California, for example, over their democratically expressed wishes.

So it is not so much a failing in democracy that these two abominations are legal, but the failure of a ruling class that is both contemptuous of the voters and unable to convince them of the policies they should support.

Likewise enforcing integration on the South does not show a failure of democracy so much as the strength of the Republican system.

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3 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 8:59 am

Is it really so surprising in a self-idealized democracy that courts arrive at popular opinions?

Does anyone have examples of powerful and unpopular decisions, of is that unlikely given the system?

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4 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 9:38 am

Remember that while “pro-life” and “pro-choice” dance around 50% approval, the strict “illegal in all circumstances” bumps along at 20% and has since 1975.

http://news.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx

The support for gay marriage went through a dramatic 20 year transformation, and a cynic or realist might suspect the courts of spotting the trend.

http://news.gallup.com/poll/210566/support-gay-marriage-edges-new-high.aspx

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5 GoneWithTheWind November 19, 2017 at 10:15 am

A democracy by it’s nature is the tyranny of the majority over the minority. That is why we have a constitution to set out what lawmakers and courts cannot do and why we have a free and unbiased press to warn us when our politicians fail in their responsibility to the people. Our courts have lets us down and do not enforce the constitution instead they have become legislators. Our free press has let us down and has been co-opted by political groups and have become king makers and rumor mongers. We the people have to reassert ourselves and take back our rights.

6 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 10:24 am

I am saying it is not tyranny when there is precommitment, regardless of the constitutional specifics one is commiting to.

7 rayward November 19, 2017 at 9:26 am

Thanks for confirming my point: success or failure, when it comes to democracy, depends on where one stands on an issue (including an issue of “fundamental rights”). I’m reminded of David Boies, the high profile lawyer, who was canonized for successfully arguing the case for gay marriage and is now being demonized for representing Harvey Weinstein. What have you done for me lately? Of course, liberty depends on fundamental rights, and courts to enforce them. Indeed, George Mason (yes, that George Mason) refused to sign the constitution because (among other things) it did not include a bill of rights (which were added later as amendments).

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8 Dick the Butcher November 19, 2017 at 9:57 am

Democracy didn’t work out for ancient Athens, and its imperialism.

What is the concern? Is it the consent of the governed? Or, is it the dictatorship of the majority?

I think you meant “. . . fundamental rights, and courts to INVENT them.”

Coercion is the new inclusion. If gay marriage were a right, the government/courts would have no discretion over it. This gay marriage isn’t about “marriage.” it’s about coercing some people to “accept” other’s life choices.

Am I the only one that caught the misstatement that calculus is “optimistic?” It’s rational.

Fun fact, the same guy (one of the two) that invented calculus, invented the gold standard.

Of course, if you had prefaced you comment with “Of course,” we would have know that its entirety is opinion, not fact or truth (see Plato).

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9 Thor November 19, 2017 at 2:04 pm

I’m of an age (49) when abortion is unlikely to make an appearance in my life, so I can happily sit on the fences.

However it saddens me immensely when it is suggested that I bear a strong resemblance to Attila the Hun (or Hitler the hun) when my only “crime” is to show solicitude for unborn infants and to ask, sometimes in medical language, some variant of: if you prick them will they not bleed?

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10 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 2:46 pm

No daughters?

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11 Engineer November 19, 2017 at 10:02 am

” a majority of Southerners opposed integration, and were willing to resort to violence to prevent the federal government from imposing its will on them. ”

Essentially no Southerners were actually willing to resort to violence to oppose integration.

The last time a majority of Southerners were willing to resort to violence to prevent the federal government from imposing its will on them, there were about 750,000 dead. http://www.historynet.com/civil-war-casualties

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12 apso November 19, 2017 at 10:35 am

We we sure integration actually happened?

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13 Steve November 19, 2017 at 8:51 pm

Have you forgotten MLK and the marches or the school integration in Arkansas or George Wallace and Alabama?

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14 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 11:47 am

It was the courts that ended segregation, and legalized gay marriage and abortion. Following rather precisely the principles of limited government (i.e. “chains on democracy”) as advocated by Buchanen and Tullock.

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15 TMC November 19, 2017 at 12:28 pm

There’s a mixed bag there Hazel. The courts ended segregation by the government, but intruded on freedom of association pretty significantly. There’s a big jump between ending segregation and forcing desegregation.

Legalized gay marriage they got right.

Abortion, they went too far. When does life start? When does the state protect against murder? Assume the state does make murder illegal. Given we don’t know when when the baby is really a person rather than a lump of cells, should we protect it up to the point we are pretty sure? That about 22 weeks right now.

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16 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm

I’m happy with a 22 week cutoff. If you haven’t figured out by then if you can take the baby to term it’s too late to decide to terminate. Only health of the mother would be a factor after 22 weeks.

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17 So Much For Subtlety November 19, 2017 at 7:43 pm

22 weeks is a fig leaf. As in every other Western country that pretends to limit abortion. It is only there as a sop to the anti-abortion community. In reality the entire West has abortion on demand up to and including once the woman has gone into labor. That is the “health of the mother” thing. It turns out not giving a woman an abortion after she has gone into labor is bad for her mental health.

The only real choice is none or all. Not some half-way compromise. When was the last time someone was prosecuted? Look at the dedication with which people ignore Gosnell.

18 chuck martel November 19, 2017 at 3:41 pm

“Legalized gay marriage they got right.”

The idea that one needs the license of the central government to eat and sleep with someone is hardly an example of freedom.

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19 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 3:47 pm

It is if some groups are not allowed to get the license

20 OneGuy November 19, 2017 at 3:58 pm

‘It is if some groups are not allowed to get the license’

Are you then in favor of polygamy? If not, why not?

IMHO the gay marriage issue, at least for the activists, was about anti-religion and not about pro-gay. You can still see it even after gay marriage became legal. Now they want to beat you over the head with your religion.

21 chuck martel November 19, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Gay couples have been living in a connubial situation throughout history. All of a sudden it’s a legal issue for a percentage of straights as well. That’s because it doesn’t have any bearing on the four most important things in life that everyone agrees upon: comfort, convenience, entertainment and security. If gay marriage meant that thermostats had to be turned down to 60 degrees, patrons had to walk to health clubs, Seinfeld re-runs were no longer in syndication or there wasn’t any security at Walmart, that would be the end of gay marriage.

22 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 4:02 pm

We can argue about the specific issues, but the point is that these are questions which everyone agrees should be decided by *courts*, not by majority rule. Neither Pro-life nor pro-choice advocates think that democratic majorities should decide these issues. In other words literally everyone has already conceded that democracy requires chains on it when it comes to fundamental rights. The only questions are what those rights are.

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23 So Much For Subtlety November 19, 2017 at 7:52 pm

I disagree. I disagree strongly. Part of the reason why the US has such a strong anti-abortion movement compared to the rest of the West is that these decisions were made by unaccountable and unelectable Courts. The Supreme Court in particular. Because it over rode the expressed democratic wish of a significant number of voters, they do not respect it. Hence the protests. The rest of the West passed laws which people may or may not have liked, but they voted for them. The anti-abortion crowd is stuck with the politicization of the Courts but I expect they would rather it was decided by voting. The pro-abortion crowd do not because I suspect they know they would lose.

If the Supreme Court had stuck to its proper role and not decided to act where Congress wouldn’t, I think America would have legal abortion by now and it would not be a political issue at all. Perhaps Utah might hold out. Perhaps not.

24 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 11:02 pm

So if the majority voted to make abortion legal, you would be fine with that? Somehow I doubt it.

25 So Much For Subtlety November 20, 2017 at 4:26 am

I might not be. But the vast majority of people would. As Catholics and other Abortion opponents have been elsewhere. When it is done properly.

Roe v. Wade lacks legitimacy because it was bad law and bad politics.

26 Massimo Heitor November 20, 2017 at 2:02 pm

In 2017 US, many Americans choose to segregate by race. For example, I know Americans of Mexican descent, who speak English as their first language, that go to great effort to move to ethnically Mexican communities in Texas where the schools teach primarily in Spanish. Should they not be allowed to do that? Do the same rules apply for all ethnic groups?

Similarly, while I completely support gay marriage, those decisions should be decentralized. If a community of people or a private city wants to define marriage as a heterosexual entity, then they should be allowed to do so. And people can segregate accordingly.

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27 Blair November 19, 2017 at 8:04 am

>>> “Calculus is an almost giddy endorsement of democracy (of a specific form) in the face of what looked like dire prospects for democratic theory.”

Thus it’s worthless to even bother with…

“… in any actual democratic system we actually find the rule of some people over others.”

Yes, democracy always equates to oligarchy in practice. Democratic theory can not be rationally defended. The only advantage of democracy is an often less violent temporal transition of power.

“Democracy” is deliberately absent from the US Constitution.

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28 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 9:03 am

The democratic bargain seems to me that you agree to abide to voting first in the abstract, then vote, then abide in practice.

All this “tyranny of the majority” stuff assumes no abstract commitment.

That is its central flaw. It assumes that voters are wholly surprised to lose, and then to have a responsibility.

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29 Blair November 19, 2017 at 11:22 am

There is no “agree to abide to voting” any where, even in some abstract presumption.

Voting “results” (as interpreted by the oligarchy) are forcibly imposed on all, no matter their consent or participation — hence the tyranny.

(Note how strongly the Democrats supported the ‘voting results’ of Trump’s election — because they had cheerfully endorsed democracy and “agreed” beforehand to abide by all election results)

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30 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 1:29 pm

It seems to me, and I am not just being negative here, but it seems to me that people can be all about the Constitution, all their lives, and then when they end up in some minority, say “tyranny of the majority.”

That is at best a contradiction, at worst a hypocrisy.

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31 TMC November 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm

To be all about the Constitution is to believe in the “tyranny of the majority.”

You have missed the whole reason for the Bill of Rights.

32 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 2:29 pm

I am pretty sure the two go together in this argument.

33 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 1:39 pm

And sure, those “not my president” guys were an example.

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34 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 2:21 pm

What do you mean ‘were’? Aren’t there “not my president” guys now?

35 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 2:35 pm

I was digging in my memory, separating those who (a) decided from day one to fight the President using legal tools and arguments from those who (b) actually denied legitimacy.

I recall few of the later, especially in real, rather then hyperbolic, terms.

Most “not my president” guys were just using hyperbole to announce their opposition, under a system of law. They were not bombing the federal building.

36 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 2:40 pm

To be clear, I think “not my president” is stupid and divisive when it is about Obama or about Trump. It is note useful hyperbole.

37 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

No one bombed the federal building to ‘not my president’ Obama either. No one even took a shot at him, kind of surprising considering his race and all the gun owners who couldn’t stand him. It was all hyperbolic rhetoric then and is now. And yes it’s stupid from either side.

38 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 3:23 pm

There are bombings though. Abortion clinics for the win by sheer number?

http://www.newsweek.com/right-wing-extremism-islamist-terrorism-donald-trump-steve-bannon-628381

39 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 3:27 pm

Dude you gotta stop moving the goalposts. Abortion clinic bombings/shootings happen no matter who is president. Stay on topic.

40 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Huh? On this very page we discuss whether the citizen should respect the democratic decision. On this page we use abortion as an example. On this page we discuss bombing as extreme disregard for government mandate.

It doesn’t just fit, it is a prime example.

41 msgkings November 19, 2017 at 3:49 pm

My mistake I thought we were talking about bombings perpetrated by people who didn’t accept who the presidential winner was.

42 So Much For Subtlety November 19, 2017 at 7:59 pm

msgkings November 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

No one bombed the federal building to ‘not my president’ Obama either. No one even took a shot at him, kind of surprising considering his race and all the gun owners who couldn’t stand him. It was all hyperbolic rhetoric then and is now. And yes it’s stupid from either side.

It is not that surprising. Republicans are very law abiding. It is the Democrats who kill other people. As they did in the Sixties. As they have been busy doing, or trying to do, since Trump was elected. We have had a BernieBro attempt to murder a significant section of the Republican congress while playing baseball. We have had another Democrat put Rand Paul into hospital.

It is only the first year and we have seen more Democratic violence than all eight years of Obama’s administration put together.

43 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 8:23 pm

To bad you have no cumulative data to support that nonsense.

Link above.

44 derek November 19, 2017 at 11:53 am

Absent voting, oligarchy collapses as the interests of the powerful diverge from the interests of the majority of people. Democracy provides a feedback mechanism that is strong enough to force course correction, but not strong enough as to follow the whims of the day.

What we saw a year ago was a very serious course correction. Democrats refused to recognize the pressures within their party, and the institutional structure was designed to prevent interlopers from taking control. Republicans the same; the consensus before the election was opposite to what garnered support for Trump. The election itself was a slap in the face of consensus. And the oligarchy and elites have still not figured out what hit them.

During the 2008 crisis I posited that these events were a reflection of something gone awry, badly, deeply and there would be a long and difficult period of correction. Countries would fail as a result. Democratic countries with healthy respect for the electorate as well as a solid counter balance in strong institutions would weather the storm; the winds would veer wildly, the democracies would respond within a solid foundation.

The almost unbelievable resistance to this feedback that we have seen over the last year has shown that the institutions are the problem. 2008 happened due to the blithering stupidity of people who should have known better, and the institutional wisdom still doesn’t have a clue.

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45 TMC November 19, 2017 at 2:29 pm

“Absent voting, oligarchy collapses as the interests of the powerful diverge from the interests of the majority of people. Democracy provides a feedback mechanism that is strong enough to force course correction, but not strong enough as to follow the whims of the day.”

That’s a pretty darn good paragraph.

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46 Alan November 19, 2017 at 8:21 am

I always think of democracy as a tool to help us keep the republic. It is the clan/party/tribal thing that threatens our success now. (and expansion of gov. into areas not authorized by the Constitution).

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47 clockwork_prior November 19, 2017 at 10:18 am

Yep, the FAA has got to go, clearly.

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48 Harun November 19, 2017 at 1:20 pm

Ironically, you choosing the agency probably that no one cares about proves his point.

As if federal spending has ballooned because the FAA needs that much money…LOL.

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49 Steve Adams November 19, 2017 at 9:08 am

Democracy with very limited government is a fair means of dealing with issues we must have government for. Once elected leaders have power over nearly every part of our lives voting changes to a mechanism to convince people to obey and is simply a tool of the ruling class.

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50 Engineer November 19, 2017 at 9:42 am

+1

When the stakes are limited (i.e., a limited role of government), imperfect mechanisms to determine consent are more readily tolerated. Representative government works pretty well there, albeit less well as the size of the representative group gets large.

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51 Blair November 19, 2017 at 11:33 am

“… dealing with issues we must have government for.. ”

But the oligarchy ALWAYS decides what issues it will control — so conceding any legitimacy to their authority is a losing game.

(…noticed any expansion of American government authorities & concerns over past 125 years?)

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52 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 9:58 am

For some reason I a remembering, or imagining, an old Twilight Zone. The people in the barrel are told one must die. They agree amongst themselves to draw straws. Someone actually gets the short straw, drama ensues.

The drama is centered on how it is easier to make an abstract commitment than to an accept a real, negative, result.

Vulcans, or Spartans for that matter, would have no problem. “I got the short straw.” “Yes, you did.”

Most votes aren’t that harsh, but the civics lesson is to honor your commitment, as you expect fellow citizens to honor theirs.

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53 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 11:53 am

The difficulty is that some things are placed off limits for democracy to rule, and other things are not. And the choice of which things are protected rights and what is not is apparaently not consider a legitimate topic of debate – for some people. For instance, why is there a protected right to freedom of speech, but not to a choice of occupation? (Censorship is forbidden , occupational licensing is not) People like Maclean are happy to support a constitutional right to gay marriage, but economic rights are verboten.

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54 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Debate is a bit of a different topic than “will you honor the Constitution, rule of law, results of elections until you manage to change them?”

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55 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 4:04 pm

“will you honor the Constitution, rule of law, results of elections until you manage to change them?”

Would you honor the rule of law and results of elections if it resulted in homosexuality being punishable by death?

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56 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 4:23 pm

There are extremes where heroes do defend “legal victims.” I recall reading a personal history written by a white Quaker about to be hung for assisting in a slave escape. (The story was to be sold to support his family.) In retrospect we think he was right, and his execution was wrong.

But it is dangerous to mistake such rare cases for the general.

It would absolutely be a mistake to say because slavery, or the holocaust, we have no responsibility to law.

57 Hazel Meade November 19, 2017 at 11:00 pm

If you think something is fundamental right that should not be subject to majority vote, you’re not going to be inclined to wait around for the majority to vote to decide that thing should be considered a fundamental right. There have been plenty of people throughout history we were willing to disobey the law to protect what they believe are basic rights.

58 clockwork_prior November 19, 2017 at 10:17 am

‘While democracy claims to be the “rule of the people” in any actual democratic system we actually find the rule of some people over others.’

Somebody seems to be missing an important detail – democracy is ruled by the people, as compared to a tyrant or monarch.

‘More formally, the winning coalition in any election is able to impose its authority on the losers.’

If in the case of many contemporary democracies, and certainly in the case of the U.S., there is a constitution that prevents this in the sense that the authors seems to be leaning towards. The winning ‘coailtion’ in any American federal election, for example, has zero power to impose its authority by forbidding people from speaking, and zero power to prevent elections from being held even if they were to lose the election.

‘Yet at the heart of the democratic ideal is the principle that all are inherently free and equal, with no natural authority to rule over one another.’

So close, and yet so far from actually understanding the point – free and equal only in the sense that all citizens share the same rights, including the right to win or lose an election that puts a citizen in a position to write laws.

‘How odd then to start from freedom and equality and end with majority coalitions imposing their policies on minorities’

As if the American Constitution, to give one extremely concrete example, doesn’t actually exist and limit what is possible for a majority coalition to impose on minorites.

‘how could the authority of democratic assemblies over free and equal persons be justified’

Lysander Spooner, please come to the courtesy phone – time for your contract law perspective.

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59 dearieme November 19, 2017 at 10:26 am

A “classic” means something from the past which has withstood the test of time. “Contemporary”, in the American misuse, means modern or current. OUP should be ashamed of the themselves for such an abortion of a title.

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60 Anonymous November 19, 2017 at 1:32 pm

For what it is worth, this relates, attacking the problem from “man in a state of nature” versus “man born and nurtured in a Constitutional republic/democracy” (semantics matter less than you think).

https://medium.com/@johnganz/libertarian-democracy-skepticism-and-the-pathological-self-774c85b768cd

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61 Melmoth November 20, 2017 at 2:37 pm

I was hoping Thrasher and Gaus were a heavy metal guitarist and an avant garde electronica producer.

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62 andy November 21, 2017 at 4:14 am

“Calculus is an almost giddy endorsement of democracy (of a specific form) in the face of what looked like dire prospects for democratic theory”

Yep, when I was reading the book and I had the same feeling when the ‘log rolling’ ideas were explained.

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