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David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, Towards an Economics of Natural Equals, A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School

Nathanaël Colin-Jaeger
p. 135-138
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David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, Towards an Economics of Natural Equals, A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, 292 pages, ‎ 978-110842897-2

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1In the wake of Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains (2017), James M. Buchanan and the Virginia School became controversial. In McLean’s book, Buchanan is depicted as being funded by far-right groups and scheming against democracy in the US. His political economy is said to be plagued by a defense of social hierarchies and to represent a conservative or even reactionary enterprise. The discussion is not limited to the specific figures of Buchanan or his acolytes such as Gordon Tullock, Warren Nutter, or Ronald Coase, and occurs in the broader ongoing debate about neoliberalism and authoritarianism, as exemplified lately by Biebricher (2018; 2020) or Chamayou (2021). Indeed, this debate contributed to the multiplication of scholarship on Buchanan and the Virginia School, exemplified most recently by Boettke and Marciano’s (2020) considerable work on Buchanan. The intellectual scene for David Levy and Sandra Peart’s book is a highly conflictual one, given the influence on our modern societies and democracies some scholars have attributed to Buchanan and the Virginia School.

2Many questions remain unanswered theoretically and historically. What are the exact relations between Buchanan and the Virginia School on the one hand and the far-right and libertarian funding on the other? Is the Virginia School ideology akin to the Chicago School or other influential authors, like Friedrich Hayek? Is the Virginia School ideology reactionary, racist, and biased toward the status quo? Should we understand neoliberalism as an authoritarian, anti-democratic, and inegalitarian creed? Towards an Economics of Natural Equals sheds new light on these debates and offers many valuable insights. 

3Peart and Levy’s book makes two kinds of contributions, which are related. First, the authors draw on extensive and impressive archival work, conducted in many places (George Mason, Duke, Stanford, the Library of Congress, the Rockefeller Archive Center, Chicago, etc.), and make available new and original material, be it correspondence between authors (Rawls-Buchanan, Buchanan-Coase, Nutter-Coase, Tullock-Popper, Tullock-Von Mises, etc.) or documents enlightening the debates and offering a vantage point to the questions at hand (such as Buchanan’s “Chicago School Thinking: Old and New,” the Universal Education project, etc.). In short, it relies on an essential variety of documents, such as letters, reports, or unpublished manuscripts, as well as published articles and books. In this respect, the numerous appendices are invaluable. Second, the authors defend several claims to challenge McLean’s and others’ reading and depict the Virginia School more positively. Levy and Peart argue that the Virginia School approach deserves to be reconsidered (264). Nevertheless, Levy and Peart’s work is not hagiographic. The authors do not hesitate to criticize Buchanan in some respects, for example, for his defense of the status quo as the norm for evaluating institutional improvements or for his failure to condemn Pinochet’s Chile.

4The book contains ten chapters, each devoted to a specific topic. Nonetheless, the book is unified by a set of themes and claims related to the underlying ethical and political conceptions of the Virginia School. The first and last chapters offer, for instance, a careful presentation of the Virginia School as being united by a group of core principles. Buchanan and the other members of the School favored exchange over efficiency. Mainstream economicsexemplified, for Buchanan, by Kenneth Arrow and the Chicago Schooldeals primarily with efficiency and proposes efficient outcomes from a vantage point. On the contrary, the Virginia School starts from the perspective of free exchange between equal individuals and refuses to dictate the outcomes of social cooperation. Economists should only “offer suggestions for public consideration” (9) and not assume some objective goals exogenously given. Peart and Levy particularly highlight the fact that the Virginia School is, in a post-Knightian fashion, inherently democratic and champions ‘government by discussion’. The political and economic process should be guided by free choice over the set of rules which allow individuals to pursue their ends. In a nutshell, the kind of economics championed by the Virginia School is the discipline studying the choice of rules and institutions for a society of free humans.

5This view starkly challenges the depiction of the Virginia School as the epitome of far-right anti-democratic views and guides the reader throughout the book. In chapter two, Peart and Levy, following their previous work (Peart and Levy, 2008), read James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Warren Nutter, or Ronald Coase, as perpetuating the views of Adam Smith, where all individuals are natural equals (35-36). This narrative also builds on the connection between John Rawls and James Buchanan, with a surprising description of their similarities. Peart and Levy (ibid.) published part of the correspondence between Buchanan and Rawls. Still, they offer a complementary view, describing how Buchanan’s journey moves away from Chicago to Rawls (93). Chapter four consists of a case study to prove this point. “The Economics of Universal Education” was written by Nutter and Buchanan in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). The text was used as evidence by McLean to show Buchanan’s support of segregation. In this text, Buchanan and Nutter advocate the voucher system defended by Friedman, i.e., a system of educational vouchers given to families, so they can directly choose the school to which they want to send their child, in order to make public and private schools compete in a market-like setting (Friedman, 1955). The relation with segregation is clear: white parents who do not want their children to mix with black children would send their children to segregating schools. The defense of freedom in this situation would be a defense of segregation. While acknowledging that Buchanan and Nutter failed to recognize fully this implication of their text, Levy and Peart show that Buchanan evolved away from his initial position and ended up defending the public-school system. Buchanan’s “mature views on race” (105) contradict the reading that views him as a conservative, or even a reactionary. Indeed, Buchanan came to advocate public schooling to equalize opportunity (106), even if it necessitates correcting the play of the market (108). Levy and Peart provide an original reading of Buchanan, for whom the fundamental norm is not market efficiency but fairness and equality of opportunity.

6This last example could be an exception, but the book’s other chapters demonstrate that the Virginia School remained impervious to the anti-democratic right. Chapter seven provides a history of the funding sources for the Virginia School, focusing on the role of the Earhart Foundation. Without denying the connections between the Virginia School and the Mont-Pèlerin Society or other important liberal think tanks, the authors display the complex relations between research centers and foundations. This chapter challenges the story of a Virginia School massively subsidized by the Koch brothers and the anti-democratic right. It underlines the role of the essential sponsor at the time, the Earhart Foundation, which was ideologically diverse and supported other fellowship programs in competing universities. Chapter eight studies the connection between the Virginia School and the anti-democratic right. Murray Rothbard and the Freedom School’s anarchists are strongly distinguished from the Virginia School. Anarchism for Buchanan is another name for justificatory liberalism, i.e., coercive rules are legitimate only if they are agreed beforehand. At the same time, the libertarian anarchists refuse all forms of coercion and are guilty of developing conspiracy theories and antisemitic views. Levy and Peart show that the theoretical convergence is non-existent, and institutional connections are fragile and troubled. Peart and Levy’s work invites the critics themselves to depart from easy conspiracy views and associations.

7In summary, Levy and Peart’s book offers a nuanced and rich description of the Virginia School, which gives plenty of elements to inform and nourish the current discussion of Buchanan and the other figures of the Virginia School and their believed influence on American politics and democracy or even global liberalism. To be sure, several claims made by the authors could be questioned, such as the alleged theoretical proximity between Rawls and Buchanan, recently studied by Jackson and Stemplowska (2021), who show that Rawls and Buchanan displayed significant theoretical divergence after the 1970s. Nevertheless, this is the fate of every work displaying the breadth and diversity of topics to be found in this book. In that respect, Levy and Peart’s work is a highly commendable book for enthusiasts or critics of the Virginia School.

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Biebricher, Thomas. 2018. The Political Theory of Neoliberalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Biebricher, Thomas. 2020. Neoliberalism and Authoritarianism. Global Perspectives, 1(1): 11872.

Boettke, Peter and Alain Marciano. 2020. The Soul of Classical Liberalism. George Mason: Mercatus Center.

Chamayou, Grégoire. 2021. The Ungovernable Society. London: Polity.

Friedman, Milton. 1955. The Role of Government in Education. In Robert A. Solo (ed.), 123-144, Economics and the Public Interest. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Jackson, Ben and Stemplowska, Zofia. 2021. “A Quite Similar Enterprise… Interpreted Quite Differently”? James Buchanan, John Rawls and the Politics of the Social Contract. Modern Intellectual History, 18(4): 1010-1033.

McLean, Nancy. 2017. Democracy in Chains. London: Penguin Books.

Peart, Sandra, and David Levy. 2008. The Street Porter and the Philosopher: Conversations on Analytical Economics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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Nathanaël Colin-Jaeger, « David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, Towards an Economics of Natural Equals, A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School »Œconomia, 12-1 | 2022, 135-138.

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Nathanaël Colin-Jaeger, « David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, Towards an Economics of Natural Equals, A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School »Œconomia [En ligne], 12-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathanaël Colin-Jaeger

ENS de Lyon, Triangle.

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