James M. Buchanan (October 3, 1919 – January 9, 2013)

James M. Buchanan, one of the past century’s most distinguished economists and most compelling champions of free markets, died earlier today at age 93. His professional career spanned more than sixty years, during which he wrote extensively on public finance, economic philosophy, and other topics in related areas. With Gordon Tullock, he founded a new subfield of economics, public choice, which has become established as a flourishing area of research, writing, and teaching. A focus of this scholarship is the journal Public Choice, which was long edited by Tullock. On his own, Buchanan established another subfield, constitutional economics, which might also be considered a subfield of political philosophy. Although it has not caught fire to the extent that public choice has, it has also attracted a substantial amount of scholarly activity. The journal Constitutional Political Economy is one fruit of this effort.

Buchanan’s output as a writer is the stuff of which young economists’ dreams are made. His collected works, published by Liberty Fund, include twenty volumes. Over the years, he wrote probably hundreds of articles, many of which were published in the top journals of economics, philosophy, and other fields, as well as many books. Several foreign universities recognized his accomplishments by awarding him an honorary degree. In 1986, he received the Nobel prize in economics.

I first encountered Jim when he came to Johns Hopkins to present a seminar paper while I was a graduate student there, in 1967, as I recall. He did not make a good impression on me then. His presentation, like all his work, was nontechnical, and Hopkins specialized in a much more formal, mathematical style of economic analysis. When Professor Bela Belassa asked him a technical question, Jim shrugged it off as if its answer didn’t matter much one way or the other. In the grad students’ minds, this attitude toward the very sorts of things we were agonizingly trying to master suggested that he was a lightweight. In this respect, we could scarcely have been more wrong.

Indeed, the hallmark of Buchanan’s work from beginning to end was a deep seriousness of purpose and procedure that not many economists have matched in the past century. Unlike the typical mainstream economist, Jim was never just fooling around, toying with a tweaked model or a trivial, throw-away idea. To a rare degree, he kept his eyes focused on the prize of true economic understanding. When I began to read and ponder his writings seriously in the 1980s, I developed a tremendous respect for his view of what markets are and how they work. A more formally inclined economist would have had great difficulty in achieving his depth of understanding; the math and the technicalities have a way of overwhelming the substance of an economic analysis, and ofttimes of obliterating it entirely. To my knowledge, Jim never committed this professional sin.

I became personally acquainted with Jim in the 1980s. I recall the first time I was invited to lecture at George Mason University’s Public Choice Center, which Buchanan and Tullock headed. Jim sat in the center near the front of the audience, two or three rows back. I had not spoken for more than 10 or 15 minutes before I noticed that Jim seemed to have fallen asleep. Splendid, I thought! My talk is so awful that the great man has simply dozed off. However, after another 10 or 15 minutes had passed, Jim interrupted me to ask a question related to something I had just said. I thereby discovered, as many others did over the years, that this behavior was simply something Jim did to relax. He definitely was not sleeping, but only closing his eyes while his ears remained fully operative.

After Buchanan received the Nobel prize in 1986, I invited him to come to Lafayette College, where I was then a professor, to give some talks to students and faculty. He graciously came, which gave me my first opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time with him, getting to know him better and picking his brain. Later, over the years, I spent much time with him at Liberty Fund colloquiums, conferences, and other professional gatherings, each time gaining a new glimpse into his mind, outlook, and attitudes.

When we established The Independent Review in 1996, Jim agreed to serve on the board of advisers. Later he contributed two articles to the journal. His photograph graces the cover of the summer 2000 issue.

At the University of Chicago, where Buchanan earned his Ph.D. degree in 1948, he was a student of Frank Knight, who was clearly the greatest influence on his thinking from that time forward. Jim was not an Austrian economist, but he had many affinities with the Austrians, especially in his ideas on cost, which he developed in his little bookCost and Choice (1969). He respected Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, especially the latter. Other Austrians made a less favorable impression on him. In his political philosophy, he was definitely not an anarchist, which put him at loggerheads with Austrians such as Murray Rothbard. In his work in constitutional political economy, Jim was striving to find a structural or institutional means of taming government power and making it truly answerable to the public. It never seemed to occur to him that this goal may be unattainable.

Jim’s work deeply influenced many economists, including me. He gave me a deeper understanding of the market process than anyone else had given me. He raised many worthwhile questions that I continue to ponder. He offered me a shining example of the economist as a serious thinker, not simply an idiot savant fooling with models. My favorite works of his include Cost and Choice and his collection titled What Should Economists Do?, which contains several articles that should be required reading for every graduate student in economics. Jim’s autobiography Better Than Plowing is a good source for gaining an understanding of the sort of man he was—which, in my experience, was unique. Perhaps another such deep, relentless, and sharply focused champion of the free market will come along to contribute to political economy, but I see none such on the horizon at present.

[Cross-posted at The Beacon.]

Comments

  1. J. M. Buchanan in a review of A. de Jassay’s “The State” was complaining about the anarchist implications of the book. He wrote something like “we should stop this foolish thinking that anarchism works and focus on constitutional constructs which would constrain the state.”

    Still, a decent economist and a good person. He will be missed.

    • When I read that some or other prominent intellectual said that sort of thing, it’s hard not to lower your estimation of them (not their work, of course). Blind spots are hallmarks of indoctrination.

      That said, I was extraordinarily lucky to have been pre-emptively inoculated against minarchism by a quirk of my syllabus: as an undergraduate (intending to major in Accounting) I had to take one Economics subject in second year. I chose “Economic and Social Issues” with the (now deceased) Prof Ross Parish.

      I did that thinking “this will be nice and soft and hand-waving – probably essay-writing about feminism and injustice or some such: ‘Social Issues’… pffft.”.

      Not a bit of it: Ross’ very first lecture (90 minutes, last thing on a Friday) was spent showing why ‘engineering’ solutions to economic problems always fail – and why policies which would achieve objectives with near-certainty, are rejected (eg, the idea – now attributed to Tullock – of a spike in cars’ steering wheels as a means of reducing road tolls [and particularly, of reducing 'collateral damage' deaths]).

      There was quite a bit of Mises, Rothbard and Hayek in the readings, too – fellows I had never heard of.

      First thing Monday I changed from Accounting (with a Math minor) to Economics (double-major with Econometrics).

      In all the time I knew him, Ross never made any mistake of the type that you attribute to Buchanan (Ross even pointed out, just before I started my PhD, the precise reason why I would not finish: “familiarity [with one's own topic] breeds contempt”).

      Every time a great economist dies, I raise a glass to Ross – who deserves all the credit for making me both a lifelong student of economics, and an anarchist.

      It’s been a horrible week, all things considered: Buchanan and then young Aaron Swarz (the latter really threw me for a loop: so much so that I actually stopped participating in an online flame war).

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