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Constraining Leviathan

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This article commemorates James M. Buchanan and his contributions to public choice and constitutional political economy. It focuses on what Buchanan had to say about constraining the State, or as he often referred to it, Leviathan. It concentrates on a handful of his major works that I think capture important elements of his thinking. It discusses Buchanan’s writings on public debt and government deficits; the size of the state; federalism; and taxation, among other things. It is argued that the main emphasis in Buchanan’s work as it pertained to constraining the State was to include provisions in the constitution that could achieve this end. These included a balanced budget amendment, rules governing the expansion of the money supply, constraints on the types of taxes that could be levied, linking expenditure proposals to the taxes that would finance them, earmarked taxes, and a generality principle, which would avoid a majority coalition’s exploitation of a minority. The article also includes a discussion of the current constitutional crisis in the United States.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout this essay when a work is cited only by date, it is the work of Buchanan under discussion at this place.

  2. 2.

    An interesting symposium on public debt appeared in Volume 23, No. 3 (September 2012) of Constitutional Political Economy.

  3. 3.

    See my discussion and quotes (Mueller 2009, pp. 193–195).

  4. 4.

    See my discussion and quotes (Mueller 2009, pp. 191–193).

  5. 5.

    I have made an effort to offer some answers (Mueller 1996, Ch. 21).


  1. Brennan, G., & Buchanan, J. M. (1980). The power to tax: Analytical foundations of a fiscal constitution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Brennan, G., & Buchanan, J. M. (1985). The reason of rules. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  3. Buchanan, J. M. (1954). Individual choice in voting and the market. Journal of Political Economy, 62, 334–343.

  4. Buchanan, J. M. (1958). Public principles of public debt. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.

  5. Buchanan, J. M. (1975). The limits of liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  6. Buchanan, J. M (1990). Europe’s constitutional future (pp. 1–20). London: Institute of Economic Affairs.

  7. Buchanan, J. M. (1995/1996). Federalism and individual sovereignty. Cato Journal, 15, 259–278.

  8. Buchanan, James M. (2005). Why I, too, am not a conservative. Cheltenham, UK: Edgar Elgar.

  9. Buchanan, J. M., & Congleton, R. D. (1998). Politics by principle, not reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  10. Buchanan, J. M., & Musgrave, R. A. (1999). Two contrasting views of the state. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

  11. Buchanan, J. M., & Tullock, G. (1962). The calculus of consent. Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press.

  12. Buchanan, J. M., & Wagner, R. E. (1977). Democracy in deficit. New York: Academic Press.

  13. Mueller, D. C. (1993). The public choice approach to politics. Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar.

  14. Mueller, D. C. (1996). Constitutional democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  15. Mueller, D. C. (2003). Public choice III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  16. Mueller, D. C. (2009). Reason, religion, and democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  17. Wicksell, K. (1896). Finanztheoretische Untersuchungen; Jena: Gustav Fisher Verlag. (English translation by James M. Buchanan, A New Principle of Taxation, in Richard A. Musgrave and Alan T. Peacock, eds., Classics in the Theory of Public Finance, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967).

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Correspondence to Dennis C. Mueller.

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Mueller, D.C. Constraining Leviathan. Const Polit Econ 25, 88–102 (2014).

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  • James Buchanan
  • State
  • Constitutions
  • Deficits

JEL Classification

  • D71
  • D72
  • H11
  • H62
  • H63