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Calhoun’s concurrent majority as a generality norm

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The purpose of this paper is to analyze the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun from the perspective of Virginia Political Economy. Specifically, this paper argues that Calhoun’s theory of the concurrent majority offers a way of operationalizing the “generality norm” of Buchanan and Congleton Politics by principle, not interest: towards nondiscriminatory democracy. liberty fund, indianapolis, (2003 [1988]).The analysis of this doctrine, which holds that constitutional democracy can only be preserved from majoritarian absolutism if minority interests have the power to check the power of majority coalitions, is this paper’s main purpose. The paper also discusses the most plausible way Calhoun’s recommendations can be put into practice in the United States by drawing on insights from his Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, in which he defends the social compact theory of the union and the benefits of federalism.

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  1. This refers to the early US period in which “antifederalist” broadly means “opposition to a strong central government,” and more specifically means “opposition to the ratification of the US Constitution.” Calhoun should be thought of as an antifederalist in the first sense rather than the second. While tracing the explicit connection between Calhoun and earlier antifederalist writers and thinkers is beyond the scope of this paper, see Ericson (1993, pp. 73–75) for an example of this link.

  2. The versions of the Disquisition and the Discourse cited in this paper are found in Lence (1992).

  3. I encourage the reader to compare search results in the American Political Science Review for “John C. Calhoun” and “A Disquisition on Government” to “James Madison” and “The Federalist Papers” (in any permutation one likes). A similar result follows for searches in Publius, one of the leading journals dedicated to the study of federalism.

  4. In an interview with Buchanan (quoted in Buchanan and Congleton 2003 [1998]: vii), Hayek describes a hypothetical amendment to the US Constitution that reads, “Congress shall make no law authorizing government to take any discriminatory measures of coercion.” This captures the essence of Hayek’s views on generality, and makes clear the link between Hayek’s project and Buchanan and Congleton’s.

  5. For a defense of the methodology of constitutional political economy, see Buchanan and Brennan (2000 [1985]).

  6. “In considering…[that which makes government necessary] that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind; and he has, accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social” (DG 5).

  7. “[Man]…is so constituted as to feel more intensely what affects him directly, than what affects him indirectly through others; or, to express it differently, he is so constituted, that his direct or individual affections are stronger than his sympathetic or social feelings” (DG 7).

  8. Calhoun goes further and asserts the locus of conflict will be between the net taxpayers and the net tax receivers in the community (DG 17–19).

  9. Public choice scholars are rightly suspicious of abstractions such as the “sense of the entire community” as Calhoun defines it. In this context, I believe it is fruitful to interpret Calhoun as saying the momentary interests of the numerical majority ought not be allowed to trump the constitutional-level concern that all individuals have in maintaining institutions that protect against political expropriation.

  10. The concurrent majority thus can be thought of as a quasi-Wicksellian (1958) unanimity rule.

  11. From here, Calhoun goes on to list a number of advantages governments of the concurrent majority have over governments of the numerical majority only, such as safety in more widely extending suffrage, its unifying effects on the community, and the instillation of virtue into the community’s citizens. He also discusses the extent to which communities are suited for constitutional government, considering issues such as the tradeoffs between liberty and security, and the compatibility of liberty with equality of outcome. His claims are contentious, and are tangential to the operation of constitutional government itself, so I will not discuss them further here.

  12. Here Calhoun seems to rely on the idea that threats to “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face” are not credible.

  13. For Calhoun, the difference between the experience of Great Britain and the United States is that, in the United States, the harmony of interests that may be supposed to exist between agents of the general government will not be found in Great Britain., where the interests of the monarchy and the nobility are opposed almost by definition. With the benefit of hindsight we see that this eventually resulted in the UK in a system where the commons—majoritarianism—reigned supreme.

  14. Briefly, the social compact theory of the union holds the United States is a confederation of sovereign states, and that the only powers the national government is authorized to wield are those expressly delegated by the several states.

  15. Calhoun uses the phrase “general government” to mean what individuals today mean by “federal government.” I will continue to use his terminology throughout, since the distinction between federalism and nationalism is crucial to Calhoun’s analysis.


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Correspondence to Alexander William Salter.

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Salter, A.W. Calhoun’s concurrent majority as a generality norm. Const Polit Econ 26, 375–390 (2015).

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