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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Bruno Leoni played an important role in the revival of classical liberal ideas in the post-war period with his legal writings, his editorship of the journal Il Politico, and as President of the Mont Pélérin Society. The Mont Pélérin Society was founded in 1947 by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Leoni was secretary of the society for many many years before being elected president in 1967 shortly before his tragic death.

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30 August, 2004

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Bruno Leoni on the different Ways in which Needs can be satisfied, either voluntarily through the Market or coercively through the State (1963)

Read the full quote in context here.

In a lecture given to the Freedom School in Colorado Springs in 1963, the Italian liberal jurist Leoni examines the differences between satisfying needs through voluntary cooperation (i.e. the market) and coercion (i.e. voting):

Legislation is a result of an all-or-none decision. Either you win and get exactly what you want, or you lose and get exactly nothing. Even worse, you get something that you do not want and you have to pay for it just as if you had wanted it. In this sense winners and losers in voting are like winners and losers in the field. Voting appears to be not so much a reproduction of the market operation as a symbolization of a battle in the field.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

We have seen in the preceding lecture that notwithstanding many similarities that may exist between voters on the one hand and market operators on the other, the actions of the two are far from actually being similar. No procedural rule seems able to allow voters to act in the same flexible, independent, consistent, and efficient way as operators employing individual choice in the market. While it is true that both voting and operating in the market are individual actions, we are compelled, however, to conclude that voting is a kind of individual action that almost inevitably undergoes a kind of distortion in its use.

Legislation considered as a result of a collective decision by a group - even if consisting of all citizens concerned as in the direct democracies of ancient times or in some small democratic communities in medieval and modern times - appears to be a law-making process that is far from being identifiable with the market process. Only voters ranking in winning majorities (if for instance the voting rule is by majority) are comparable to people who operate on the market. Those people ranking in losing minorities are not comparable with even the weakest operators on the market, who at least under the divisibility of goods (which is the most frequent case) can always find something to choose and to get, provided that they pay its price. Legislation is a result of an all-or-none decision. Either you win and get exactly what you want, or you lose and get exactly nothing. Even worse, you get something that you do not want and you have to pay for it just as if you had wanted it. In this sense winners and losers in voting are like winners and losers in the field. Voting appears to be not so much a reproduction of the market operation as a symbolization of a battle in the field. If we consider it well, there is nothing "rational" in voting that can be compared with rationality in the market. Of course voting may be preceded by argument and bargaining, which may be rational in the same sense as any operation on the market. But whenever you finally come to vote, you don’t argue or bargain any longer. You are on another plane. You accumulate ballots as you would accumulate stones or shells - the implication being that you do not win because you have more reasons than others, but merely because you have more ballots to pile up. In this operation you have neither partners nor interlocutors but only allies and enemies. Of course your own action may still be considered rational as well as that of your allies and enemies, but the final result is not something that can be simply explained as a scrutiny or a combination of your reasons and of those of people who vote against them. The political language reflects quite naturally this aspect of voting: Politicians speak willingly of campaigns to be started, of battles to be won, of enemies to be fought, and so on. This language does not usually occur in the market. There is an obvious reason for that: While in the market supply and demand are not only compatible but also complementary, in the political field, in which legislation belongs, the choice of winners on the one hand and losers on the other are neither complementary nor even compatible. It is surprising to see how this simple - and I would say obvious - consideration of the nature of group decisions (and particularly of voting, which is the usual procedural device used to make them) is overlooked by both the theorists and the man in the street. Voting, and particularly voting by majority rule, is often considered a rational procedure not only in the sense that it renders it possible to reach decisions when the members of the group are not unanimous, but also in the sense that it seems to be the most logical one under the circumstances.

[More works by Bruno Leoni (1913 – 1967)]