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Moral community and moral order: Buchanan’s theory of obligation


In 1981, James Buchanan published the text of a lecture entitled “Moral Community, Moral Order, and Moral Anarchy.” The argument in that paper deserves more attention than it has received in the literature, as it closely follows the argument made by Adam Smith in Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith believed, and rightly, that moral communities—to use Buchanan’s words—are indispensable. Smith also believed that the system could be expanded to encompass norms that foster commercial society. Buchanan allows for the same possibility in his discussion of moral community, in some ways similar to Hayek’s “great society” norms. But Buchanan points out the dark possibility that moral orders can collapse, relegating interactions outside of small moral communities to moral anarchy. Buchanan’s contribution is an important, and unrecognized, link between Smith’s conception of propriety and Hume’s conception of convention.

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  1. One might well interpret the passage as “self-interest, properly understood” rather than as a duty of altruism. Smith believed that helping others makes us happy and secures our place in society as being someone who deserves to be praised.

  2. One intriguing possibility, suggested to the author in conversation with Daniel Smiths, is that Buchanan’s view here could be an outgrowth from his earlier The Limits of Liberty (Buchanan 1975) wherein he seems to conclude that (1) government is necessary to avoid anarchy, but that (2) a constitutional revolution (or civic religion) is necessary for government to work. It is an interesting speculation and the present author hopes to pursue it in future work.

  3. In the most extreme cases, literal survival is at stake, as in the case of membership in “communities” such as prison gangs. See Skarbek (2014) for instances in which membership in a community is a requirement because moral order cannot be sustained.

  4. I say “his” because, according to Diamond, the obligations apply only to men. It is possible that a woman traveling alone would encounter another woman, but it’s unlikely.


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An earlier version of this paper was prepared to be presented at the Dr. James M. Buchanan Centennial Birthday Academic Conference, on October 2, 2019, at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The efforts of Daniel Smith in organizing the conference, and in carefully editing the papers, is much appreciated; literally none of this would have happened without Prof. Smith. The author further acknowledges the helpful suggestions of Peter Boettke, Geoffrey Brennan, Stephen Miller, Georg Vanberg, and participants at the conference. Any remaining errors are the author’s, however.

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Correspondence to Michael Munger.

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Munger, M. Moral community and moral order: Buchanan’s theory of obligation. Public Choice 183, 509–521 (2020).

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  • History of economic thought
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  • P5