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James M. Buchanan and Frank H. Knight on democracy as “government by discussion”


  • Ross B. Emmett

    (Arizona State University)


Among twentieth century inheritors of the classical liberal mantle, the notion that democracy could be understood as “government by discussion” is found most prominently in the work of Frank H. Knight and James M. Buchanan. The purpose of the present paper is to compare Knight and Buchanan’s use of the expression “democracy is government by discussion”. Knight adopted the expression in reference to the means by which (a) individuals coordinate decisions and actions to facilitate constitutional decisions about social action and (b) we coordinate society’s norms and values. For Buchanan, democracy as discussion occurs only at the level of constitutional decisions. Thus, while their use of the expression unites them, it also provides a way of examining the divide between them.

Suggested Citation

  • Ross B. Emmett, 2020. "James M. Buchanan and Frank H. Knight on democracy as “government by discussion”," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 183(3), pages 303-314, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:pubcho:v:183:y:2020:i:3:d:10.1007_s11127-020-00815-4
    DOI: 10.1007/s11127-020-00815-4

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Frank H. Knight, 1936. "The Quantity of Capital and the Rate of Interest: II," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 44(5), pages 612-612.
    2. Frank H. Knight, 1936. "The Quantity of Capital and the Rate of Interest: I," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 44(4), pages 433-433.
    3. James M. Buchanan & Yong J. Yoon, 2015. "Individualism and Political Disorder," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 16046.
    4. McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen, 2006. "The Bourgeois Virtues," University of Chicago Press Economics Books, University of Chicago Press, number 9780226556635, October.
    5. Buchanan, James M, 1987. "The Constitution of Economic Policy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(3), pages 243-250, June.
    6. James M. Buchanan, 1954. "Social Choice, Democracy, and Free Markets," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 62(2), pages 114-114.
    7. Frank H. Knight, 1967. "Laissez Faire: Pro and Con," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 75(6), pages 782-782.
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    More about this item


    Frank H. Knight; James M. Buchanan; Government as discussion; Democracy; Constitutional political economy;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • B2 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925
    • B3 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals


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