2.4 — The Status Quo, Tradition, & Constitutional Change — Class Content

Wednesday, March 2, 2022


We are wrapping up our discussion of constitutional political economy before diving into politics under the constitution we have (i.e. assuming our constitutional rules are fixed) in Unit III. I want to discuss at least two major concepts and problems, which again will venture into political philosophy and normative territory.

First, a reminder about the constantly shifting focus between pre-constitutional rules and post-constitutional rules. This is one of the things Buchanan is getting at with his somewhat vague and frustrating idea of the “relatively absolute absolutes.” As part of this, Buchanan gives the status quo a special status, that it needs no justification, but that changes from it do require justification. The rules, traditions, and customs that we currently follow should be treated as absolute and given, but only relatively so — in that we can ultimately and eventually change them as needed, but not too hastily.

This gets us into the second idea that I want to discuss: the role of tradition and changing constitutional rules. This comes across in Buchanan, but I also gave you a chapter by Hayek where he gives his characteristic account of how rules and rule-following behavior emerge in human society. It is more about gradual and unconscious cultural evolution that often restrains our moral intuitions as opposed to what he calls “rational constructivism” (humans rationally designing the system of rules and customs). This brings up a conflict between our moral intuitions (that come from the fact that we historically evolved in tribal settings) and the market-based society that Hayek calls “the extended order”. Similar to Buchanan, it also places some level of importance on ingrained tradition. Hayek, while not a political conservative1, holds tradition and customs with some reverence due to this.

Both Buchanan and Hayek do, however, recognize the need to subject specific norms, traditions, and customs to criticism and change or removal. This is essential to progress, and there are many illiberal customs that are worthy of us abandoning. However, both caution that we should not be too hasty to throw out something we do not fully understand the consequences of, and we should be skeptical of calls for sudden, major social changes, especially of the rational constructivist variety.

Related to this, many recognize flaws in our current constitution, and some go so far as to say we should change the constitution or perhaps even call a new constitutional convention. Right now the country of Chile is in the process of creating a new constitution, something worth examining.


Questions to Guide Your Reading

  • What are Buchanan’s idea of the “relatively absolute absolutes?”

  • How are the relatively absolute absolutes related to shifting our focus between constitutional rules and political rules?

  • How does Hayek’s account of where our rules come from conflict with the “social contract” view of how States originated — or at least why they should be viewed as legitimate (think about Hobbes, Locke, & Rousseau)?

  • What is “between instinct and reason?”

  • What does Hayek call “the fatal conceit?”

  • What does Hayek call “constructivist rationalism?” Why is Hayek opposed to this view?

  • How is Hayek’s comparison of earlier writers taking a constructivist rationalist view as opposed to the alternative view he presents, similar to the contrast that Constant discussed between the idea of liberty to the Ancients vs. the Moderns?

  • How should we approach “tradition?”


Below, you can find the slides in two formats. Clicking the image will bring you to the html version of the slides in a new tab. Note while in going through the slides, you can type h to see a special list of viewing options, and type o for an outline view of all the slides.

The lower button will allow you to download a PDF version of the slides. I suggest printing the slides beforehand and using them to take additional notes in class (not everything is in the slides)!


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  1. Note, Buchanan also wrote a book with a similar title↩︎