Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”
When I was a student, my friends and I would stay up all night to discuss such questions as the truth or otherwise of determinism. Was the entire future of the universe immanent in its past, indeed had everything been determined from the very foundation of the universe (if it had one)? If so, what of our supposed freedom?
The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a delightful yet potentially bewildering interview with Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer on the pleasures of reading Proust and other French writers in their original language. Long obsessed with all things French, Breyer has consistently endorsed the incorporation of European jurisprudential insights into American constitutional decision-making in an attempt to refute originalist interpretations of the American legal and political tradition. Judge Richard A. Posner, in a now-famous critique of Breyer, correctly suggests that what is ultimately at stake is a disavowal of the “liberty of the ancients” for a new and “active” liberty and theory of unrestrained democracy embodied in recent studies of European law and political thought.