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.
- Samaritan's dilemma
- Public goods
I thank John Meadowcroft for his comments on a previous version of the paper.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use onlyLearn about institutional subscriptions
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.
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.
I thank John Meadowcroft for pointed this out to me.
Boettke, P., & Marciano, A. (2020). The soul of classical political economy. James M. Buchanan from the archives, Mercatus Center.
Boettke, P. J., Marciano, A., & Stein, S. (2021). They never walked alone. Workshops, seminars, conferences and the making of Virginia Political Economy. Revue d’Économie Politique, 131(5), 729–751
Boettke, P. J., & Martin, A. (2010). Exchange, production, and Samaritan dilemmas, mimeo, http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/33199/
Boone, P. (1996). Politics and the effectiveness of foreign aid. European Economic Review, 40, 289–329.
Bovard, J. (1983). Feeding everybody: How federal food programs grew and grew. Policy Review, 26(Fall), 42–51.
Burnside, C., & Dollar, D. (2000). Aid, policies, and growth. American Economic Review, 90(4), 847–868.
Dughera, S., & Marciano, A. (2022). Supervise me if you can. Relational feelings, incentive pays and supervisory violations. Journal of Economics (forthcoming).
Buchanan, J. M. (1961a). Simple majority voting, game theory and resource use. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 27(3), 337–348.
Buchanan, J. M. (1961b). Comments. In J. M. Buchanan (Ed.), Public finances: Needs, sources, and utilization (pp. 122–129), Princeton University Press.
Buchanan, J. M. (1965a). An economic theory of clubs. Economica, 32(125), 1–14.
Buchanan, J. M. (1965b). Ethical rules, expected values, large numbers. Ethics, 76(1), 1–13.
Buchanan, J. M. (1967). Cooperation and conflict in public goods interactions. Economic Inquiry, 5(2), 109–121.
Buchanan, J.M. (1979). Natural and Artifactual Man. What Should Economists Do?, Liberty Press.
Buchanan, J. M., & Lomasky, L. (1984). The matrix of contractarian justice. Social Philosophy and Policy, 2(1), 12–32.
Buchanan, J. M. (1999). 1968a. The demand and supply of public goods.
Buchanan, J. M. (1968). A behavioral theory of pollution. Economic Inquiry, 6(5), 347–358.
Buchanan, J. M. (1975). The Samaritan’s dilemma. In E. S. Phelps (Ed.), Altruism, morality and economic theory (pp. 71–85). Sage Foundation.
Buchanan, J. M. (1977). Law and the invisible hand. In S. H. Bernard (Ed.), Interaction of economics and the law (pp. 127–138). Lexington Books.
Buchanan, J. M. (1978). Markets, states, and the extent of morals. American Economic Review, 68(2), 364–368.
Buchanan, J. M. (1993). How can constitutions be designed so politicians who seek to serve ‘public interest’ can survive and prosper? Constitutional Political Economy, 4(1), 1–6.
Buchanan, J. M. (1998). Majoritarian logic. Public Choice, 97, 13–21.
Buchanan, J. M. (2005). Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum. Public choice, 124 (1/2), Policy challenges and political responses: public choice perspectives on the post-9/11 world (july), 19–31.
Buchanan, J. M., & Kafoglis, M. Z. (1963). A note on public goods supply. American Economic Review, 53(3), 403–414.
Buchanan, J. M., & Tullock, G. (1962). The calculus of consent: logical foundations of constitutional democracy. The University of Michigan Press.
Coyne, C. J. (2008). After war: The political economy of exporting democracy. Stanford University Press.
Fleury J. -B., & Marciano, A. (2018a). The making of a constitutionalist: James Buchanan on education. History of Political Economy, 50(3), 511–548.
Fleury, J.-B., & Marciano, A. (2018b). The sound of silence: A review essay of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Journal of Economic Literature, 56(4), 1492–1537.
Futagami, R., Kamada, K., & Sato, T. (2004). Government transfers and the Samaritan’s dilemma in the family. Public Choice, 118(1/2), 77–86.
Gibson, C. C., Andersson, K., Ostrom, E., & Shivakumar, S. (2005). The Samaritan’s dilemma. Oxford University Press.
Lehto, O., & Meadowcroft, J. (2021). Welfare without rent seeking? Buchanan’s demogrant proposal and the possibility of a constitutional welfare state. Constitutional Political Economy, 32(2), 145–164.
Marciano, A. (2013). Why market failures are not a problem: James Buchanan on Market Imperfections, Voluntary Cooperation, and Externalities. History of Political Economy, 45(2), 223–254.
Marciano, A. (2015). Buchanan on pro-social behaviors: Why is ethics necessary. Œconomia, 5(3), 295–311.
Marciano, A. (2016). Buchanan’s non-coercive economics for self-interested individuals: Ethics, small groups, and the social contract. Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 38(1), 1–20.
Marciano, A. (2021). James Buchanan: Clubs and alternative welfare economics. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 35(3), 243–256.
Musgrave, R. A. (1939). The voluntary exchange theory of public economy. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 53(2), 213–237.
Musgrave, R. A. (1959). The theory of public finance. McGraw Hill Book Co.
Olson, M. (1965). The logic of collective action. Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press.
Phelps, E. (ed). (1975). Altruism, morality, and economic Theory. Russel Sage Foundation.
Samuelson, P. A. (1954). The pure theory of public expenditure. Review of Economics and Statistics, 36(4), 387–389.
Skarbek, E. C. (2016). Aid, ethics, and the Samaritan’s dilemma: Strategic courage in constitutional entrepreneurship. Journal of Institutional Economics, 12(2), 371–393.
Stone, D. (2008). The Samaritan’s dilemma: Should government help your neighbor? Nation Books.
Tiebout, C. M. (1956). A pure theory of local expenditures. Journal of Political Economy, 64(5), 416–424.
Tiebout, C. M. (1961). An economic theory of fiscal decentralization. Buchanan, 1961 (pp. 79–96). Princeton.
Wagner, R. E. (2005). Redistribution, poor relief, and the welfare state. In J. Backhaus & R. E. Wagner (Eds.), Handbook of public finance (pp. 385–405). Springer.
Williamson, C. (2010). Exploring the failure of foreign aid: The role of incentives and information. Review of Austrian Economics, 23, 17–33.
Editors and Affiliations
© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG
About this chapter
Cite this chapter
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
Publisher Name: Springer, Cham
Print ISBN: 978-3-031-23014-1
Online ISBN: 978-3-031-23015-8