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The Political Economy of Buchanan's Samaritan's Dilemma

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Abstract

Written by James Buchanan in the early 1970s, “The Samaritan's Dilemma” is a pessimistic essay, marked by his author's negative views about the situation in Western societies at that time. Yet, the situation described in this essay also fits into Buchanan’s approach to cooperation and free riding. Put differently, it is perfectly with Buchanan’s views on public economics. This is what we aim at showing in this short article. Our demonstration develops in two parts. First, we show that Buchanan's main argument about cooperation in the provision of public goods or removal of externalities necessarily leads to situations such as the one described in the Samaritan's dilemma. Second, we show that Buchanan did not take the situation seriously until the end of the 1960s, a few years before he wrote his essay on the dilemma.

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I thank John Meadowcroft for his comments on a previous version of the paper.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In his description of the interaction between the Samaritan and the recipient, Buchanan wrote that the recipient had two strategies: “the potential parasite… may work … Or… refuse work” (1975, 76). Then, the many examples he gave of Samaritan dilemmas evidence that it was not only a matter of “work”. For instance, he used the case of a mother who hesitates to “spank a misbehaving child”. Indeed, it hurts her to have to punish her child but “spanking may be necessary to instill in the child the fear of punishment that will inhibit future misbehavior.” (76) Here, it is no longer a matter of “work” strictly speaking. it seems to be more of a matter of changing the behavior of the child.

  2. 2.

    By contrast with what Buchanan and Roger Congleton demonstrated—namely that Samaritan dilemmas can result from majority cycling—, we have shown that the dilemma is independent from the rule used to make the political decisions.

  3. 3.

    I thank John Meadowcroft for pointed this out to me.

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Marciano, A. (2023). The Political Economy of Buchanan's Samaritan's Dilemma. In: Leroch, M.A., Rupp, F. (eds) Power and Responsibility. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-23015-8_19

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