Pete Boettke On James Buchanan, And Implications In Electricity

Lynne Kiesling

At the new Austrian Economists blog, Pete Boettke has a very nice post on autonomy and how freedom and responsibility affect economic models. His discussion gives some insights into the ideas underpinning James Buchanan’s work, as Pete learned it and teaches it in his courses. He reminds us of the extent to which liberty and responsibility are inextricably intertwined:

But this image of man as active chooser also requires that individuals willingly embrace the challenge of constructing their life and accept the responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Liberty and responsibility are concepts at the core of Buchanan’s reflections on the human predictament and thus in the proper domain of economic and political analysis. The political economist inspired by Buchanan’s argument would whole heartedly [sic] agree because they find it unobjectionable that individuals want to be free to make their own choices. Autonomy is valued and cherished by individuals across the political spectrum even if they don’t recognize the full impact of the concept in their political and economic philosophy.

But Buchanan has more recently argued that we may be losing this sense of ourselves in the modern age. Autonomy is losing its appeal. The learned helplessness we have acquired by living in a political culture of preferential treatment and protection from ourselves may have left the modern mind incable of accepting the responsibilities of freedom. We are instead afraid to be free. This shift in our human imagination is perhaps the most dangerous threat to economic and political freedom we have faced yet.

This is a disturbing thought, and unfortunately one that seems plausible to me. I see it a lot in electric power policy discussions. We find ourselves at a point where many people argue that affordable electric power service is a right, not a commercial transaction. The unfortunate cultural/mental consequence of that argument is a form of learned helplessness: customers feel no responsibility to engage with active decisiveness in their energy choices. We are told how we will consume power and how much we’ll pay, so we just mentally check out, set the thermostat, leave the computers and lights on when we leave the office.

In electric power we don’t have the freedom to choose, and we have consequently un-learned how to be responsible for our energy choices. Like Pete, and like Professor Buchanan, I worry that this mindset that accepts paternalism will erode freedom, as well as leading us to use more resources than needed to generate power, build transmission lines, and so on.

Market processes are an antidote to this self-destructive slide, because you have the freedom to act coupled with the responsibility to meet your obligations. Pete comments on this too:

We must remember that one of the 18th century arguments that Smith and his contemporaries made about the superiority of commercial society was the character development it engendered by making individuals responsible for their choices and accountable to others through the discipline of repeated dealings on the market.

Steve Horwitz has an interesting post based on Pete’s post, looking at the extent to which parenting has created children who grow up with little experience of taking responsibility or taking risk, and how that contributes to the problem Pete notices.