Normative and positive theories of public finance: contrasting Musgrave and Buchanan

Desmarais-Tremblay, Maxime. 2014. Normative and positive theories of public finance: contrasting Musgrave and Buchanan. Journal of Economic Methodology, 21(3), pp. 273-289. ISSN 1350-178X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This paper assesses James M. Buchanan's claim of following a positive approach in stark contrast to the normative approach to public finance of Richard A. Musgrave. The goal of this paper is to shed light on the foundations of modern American public finance by analysing one aspect of the methodology of its two most prominent fathers. I show (1) that it is difficult to distinguish Musgrave's and Buchanan's theories of public goods along the positive/normative dividing line and (2) that Buchanan's theory can also be considered normative. In the first three parts, I follow the Weberian methodological tradition in looking for value judgements in the theories, and by reflecting on the nature of ideal types. In the last part, I propose a broader interpretation of Buchanan's methodological stance within the academic context of the 1960s.

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Identification Number (DOI):


R.A. Musgrave, J.M. Buchanan, public finance, positive economics, normative economics, Max Weber

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute of Management Studies


23 October 2013Accepted
29 July 2014Published Online

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Date Deposited:

30 Jul 2018 12:54

Last Modified:

30 Oct 2020 10:44

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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