In one of Buchanan best known programatic statements --- What Should Economists Do? --- he argues that his purpose was to broaden the scope of economics wide enough to permit the analysis of collective, as well as private, choice and organization. But in the process he doesn't want to collapse one to the other, or to blur the distinction between the different realms of human interaction. He does insist on behavioral symmetry as a methodological principle, but that is because it permits the objective examination on institutional/contextual differences.
Buchanan explains the demarcation between politics and economics as follows:
"The distinction to be drawn between economics and politics, as disciplines, lies in the nature of the social relationships among individuals that is examined in each. Insofar as individuals exchange, trade, as freely-contracting units, the predominant characteristic of their behavior is 'economic.' And this, of course, extends our range far beyond the ordinary pre-money nexus. Insofar as individuals meet one another in a relationship of superior-inferior, leader to follower, principal to agent, the predominant characteristic in their behavior is 'political,' stemming, of course, from our everyday usage of the word 'politician.' Economics is the study of the whole system of exchange relationships. Politics is the study of the whole system of coercive or potentially coercive relationships. In almost any particular social institution, there are elements of both types of behavior, and it is appropriate that both the economist and the political scientist study such institutions. What I should stress is the potentiality of exchange in those socio-political institutions that we normally consider to embody primarily coercive or quasi-coercive elements. To the extent that man has available to him alternatives of action, he meets his associates as, in some sense, an 'equal,' in other words, in a trading relationship. Only in those situations where pure rent is the sole element in return is the economic relationship wholly replaced by the political." Buchanan CW, Vol. 1, p. 40.
Now given the special deals that were required to get the votes in order to pass the health care bill yesterday, I wonder if it is Buchanan's point about 'pure rent' and 'politics' is what has my pal Steve Horwitz upset in his critique of the process by which this bill was passed, or is it the bad policy point about incentives and consequences on the delivery of health care services, or some combination of both?
P.S.: Horwitz has famously argued "Ought does not imply can." And the speech in which Steve makes that argument is among Horwitz's finest in my opinion (he has emerged in his career sort of like the Beatles (not Rush) though with a lot of hits to choose from --- Horwitz is one of the scholars who has really benefited from the web and the blogosphere, as the web gave us access to his teaching where he excels and the blogosphere gave him voice in economic commentary). But I would argue that we can run the Horwitz sentence the other way as well --- Just because we can, doesn't mean we ought to (or should). Obama and Pelosi, and crowd, showed that they could in fact pass a bill, that doesn't mean that they should have passed this bill. I think working through both arguments --- that ought doesn't imply can, and that can doesn't imply ought -- is the stuff that makes for very good political economy. And I think that is what political economists should do.