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Constitutional moments in Eastern Europe and subjectivist political economy

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This article provides epistemic foundations for traditional rational-choice political science, to explain when and how ideas matter. Operational codes, epistemic communities and the structural patterns of ideas demonstrates the constitutional moments that occur during crises, and how ideas can underpin and direct the formation of interest groups. The implications for policy reform are discussed, along with an application to the Constitutional Moments during the transition of Central and Eastern Europe.

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  1. Tollison and Anderson do acknowledge in a footnote, “Historians who mention this payment to Cobden usually explain that it was intended to cover the debts of which his business had accumulated during his tenure” (Tollison and Anderson 1985:208). They dismiss this on the grounds that he’d also lost money following railroad speculation, but this is irrelevant. They accept that the payments occurred after the League dissolved, and since they don’t provide any evidence that Cobden was aware that he’d receive them during his campaigning, they cannot use the payoffs as a motivation for his actions.

  2. Mises puts it bluntly: “Human action is necessarily always rational. The term ‘rational action’ is therefore pleonastic and must be rejected as such” (Mises 1998:19). This also avoids the tricky implications of widespread irrationality (Caplan 2007).

  3. Also see Aligica and Evans (2008) for a methodological discussion regarding thought experiments and Schonhardt-Bailey (2006) utilises alternative approaches to explain the specific relationship between ideas, interests and institutions for the repeal of the Corn Laws.

  4. This was conducted in Romania in Summer 2005. It was supported by the Global Prosperity Initiative, run by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

  5. I credit Stephan Lai with a useful analogy: if ideas are pieces of candy, “operational codes” are the coloured bits of paper that wrap them. The function of the wrapper is to label them to enable comparison and exchange.

  6. This supports recent attention to historical narratives (Bates et al. 1998), where a chronology of events is used to uncover the nature of causality.

  7. As Peter Haas points out it “somewhat resembles Kuhn’s broader sociological definition of a paradigm, which is ‘an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community’” (Haas 1992:3).

  8. By contrast ideas are non-rivalrous and non-excludable and their creation and exchange can be viewed as a well-governed commons similar to open-source software and free culture (see Raymond 1999; Chiao 2003, unpublished; Lessig 2004; Evans 2006b). However this doesn’t mean that ideas are not scarce resources. We have limited cognitive capabilities and time is the ultimate scarce resource.

  9. That is when they are “too feeble to govern but strong enough to block reform” (Skidelsky 1996).

  10. Ashford (1997) comments on four ways in which ideas can dictate interests, and I shall proceed along similar lines, but expanding upon one of his categories to tie into Gamble (1989). The examples that follow are a hybrid of their respective insights.

  11. It is interesting to note that Ackerman’s second book analyses “how American institutions have in fact operated to organize popular debate and decision during our most creative periods of constitutional politics” (Ackerman 1998:6).

  12. Interview with PBS Commanding Heights, Interview conducted 6/15/00.

  13. Interview with PBS Commanding Heights, Interview conducted 11/12/00.

  14. Interview with PBS Commanding Heights, Interview conducted 10/05/00.

  15. Remarks were made at the graduation ceremonies of the American Institute for Political and Economic Studies (Fund for American Studies) at Charles University, August 2 2003 (cited in Boettke 2003:147).

  16. The case of Romania is an exception since the constitutional moment was far from bloodless, and in keeping with the orthodox view of what constitutes a revolution. For this reason it’s an important outlier, but still fits within an ideas-explanation (Evans 2006a). Indeed it validates the point because the examples of bloodless revolutions in other countries prove that violence was not inevitable. Rather, it shows that the government’s choice between sending in the tanks or acquiescing follows the people’s protests. Strict rational choice may well explain the incentives faced by the more authoritarian rulers in the Soviet regimes, but their action is always a response to the ideas-driven constitutional moment that brings people to the streets.


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I am grateful to the Earhart Foundation, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at George Mason University for providing financial support during the research for this article. I thank Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter Boettke, Richard Wagner, participants of the HCS Circle, the editor of this journal, and an anonymous referee for useful comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Evans, A.J. Constitutional moments in Eastern Europe and subjectivist political economy. Const Polit Econ 20, 118–138 (2009).

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