A few James Buchanan reminiscences

by on January 11, 2013 at 7:03 am in Economics, History | Permalink

Most of all I thought of him as a moralist and one of our best moralists.  I don’t mean an ethical philosopher (though he did that too), but a personal moralist and a judge of all that was around him.  His advocacy of a 100% inheritance tax is essential to understanding the man, as was his dislike of northeastern elites, a category to which he was never quite sure if I belonged.  He was a dedicated romantic who, after an intellectually traumatic encounter with Frank Knight, was looking for new, non-religious foundations for some rather old-fashioned views, often of a regional nature (Buchanan was from Tennessee).  He remains one of the least well understood and least accessible economics Nobel Laureates, and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon.

Woe to the man caught shirking by Buchanan. He was up every day, working at 6 a.m., and expected not much less from others.

He was not always easy to have as a colleague.  He created a world around himself, intellectually, socially, and otherwise, and he lived in no other world but his own.

Betty Tillman was an essential ingredient behind his success, and over the years I grew to understand her managerial and advisory talent for Jim and for the Public Choice Center more generally.

His Better than Plowing is one of the underrated autobiographies of economics.

He favored titles with alliteration, such as The Calculus of Consent, The Limits of Liberty, and The Reason of Rules, three of his best books.

Jim was a splendid manager of collaborations and brought out in the best in Gordon Tullock, Geoff Brennan, Dick Wagner, Yong Yoon, and others.  Institution-building was another important part of his legacy.  Not just the Center for Study of Public Choice, but also Mont Pelerin, Atlas, Liberty Fund, and the Institute for Humane Studies were all important to him, among other groups.

Some of his key phrases were:

“the relatively absolute absolutes” (don’t ask)

“Don’t get it right, get it written”

and, most of all:

“Onward and upward”

He made us all better and I will always miss him.

prior_approval January 11, 2013 at 7:24 am

‘Betty Tillman was an essential ingredient behind his success, and over the years I grew to understand her managerial and advisory talent for Jim and for the Public Choice Center more generally.’

This brings back memories, oddly enough – but it only took days for most of us in a GMU dept. that was not economics to understand her role.

anon January 11, 2013 at 8:39 am

Anyone who has had a good assistant knows how crucial they are to your own success, efficiency, and good mental health. Here’s a Mason article about Betty Tillman


Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 8:07 am

“not always easy to have as a colleague”

I see nothing but institutional failures. E.g. why does one guy get veto on your tenure regardless of whether he gets pithy on one paper, especially in opinion-based-sciences.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 8:36 am

Again, you are describing ACADEMIA.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 8:38 am

I think it must be like what Warren Buffett said about value investing, that you can show some guys and in 30 seconds they get it and they go make a career and other guys you can talk to them about it every day and they never see it.

prior_approval January 11, 2013 at 8:55 am

This blog is very far removed from academia – that you don’t recognize this is apparent.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 9:06 am

Huh? What does that even mean?

John January 11, 2013 at 11:16 am

p_a complains that his comments are being deleted. Judging by how often he comments, far too few are being deleted. 90% of his comments do not add to the discussion.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 11:32 am

Okay, I never would have gotten that.

But it’s just weird to me how you complain about academia, and then complain about instances where individuals are able to transcend academia.

It’s not an ideological or team issue. I’ve read where Krugman talks about writing his science fiction paper at a time when he was depressed at how miserable it was to be an assistant professor.

Baphomet January 11, 2013 at 8:22 am

Yes, I never understood that stuff about the “relatively absolute absolutes” that he seemed to consider extremely profound. What was that all about? It is something he picked up from Knight, is it not?

Master of None January 11, 2013 at 8:28 am

Are there any other Nobel Laureates that advocate a 100% inheritance tax?

I do, mostly to maintain fairness, even though it’s against my personal interests.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 8:40 am

“His advocacy of a 100% inheritance tax is essential to understanding the man”

Well, then I’m marginally less interested in the man, so where do I go to find out why he advocated this idea? Yes, I’m a brown belt in Google-Fu, but when I search for “buchanan 100% inheritance tax” I get this comment.

Brian Donohue January 11, 2013 at 9:43 am

I always thought Friedman thought the inheritance tax was ‘least bad’- not 100% though.

I think it falls under the heading “incentives matter’.

Brian Donohue January 11, 2013 at 9:53 am
Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 11:42 am

Those reasonable sounding questioners sound so naive to me today. Of course the fellow India is poor not by his own doing, but he’s poor because of the institutions, one of which might be allowing people to allocate their own estates.

C. Hessenflow January 11, 2013 at 10:05 am

Did Buchanan write a paper supporting a 100% inheritance tax? I would like to read it. Can any link a reference.

Larry January 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm

As a moral matter, I think 100% is the right number. Each generation should make its own way, and I think it would be healthier for them, too.

As a practical matter, I think that many people work hard precisely so they can hand something to their children. Incentives matter.

As the robots take over work, more and more income will come from investments (and transfers of that income.) Unless someone gives them assets, it will be hard for coming generations to acquire them. I dunno. Maybe everything will fall so far in price that it will effectively be free.

Rahul January 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

In that spirit, what’s your opinion on Jubilee Years?

Matt January 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Or on giving birthday presents to children?

Doug January 11, 2013 at 8:48 am

I believe the book was “The Limits of Liberty.”

B.B. January 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

When I started grad studies at UCLA, Buchanan had already left. He wrote about it, with a moralist perspective, in “Academia In Anarchy,” his critique of Sixties radicalism. The UCLA economics department was under siege from radical elements in the late-1960s, while he was there.

Andrew' January 11, 2013 at 9:17 am

Or, maybe he was a great thinker who should have been allowed to stay at one place and think.

ad nauseum January 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

Dude, you should post a link to your blog so that we can all bask in your “fact based” opinions!

Brian Donohue January 11, 2013 at 10:56 am

“Nobody from the time that I worked at GMU has something so gauche as a blog”

so you decided to become a house troll instead?

stay classy, P_A!

Brian Donohue January 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Andrew’ can speak for himself if he wishes.

Dude, virtually everything you write here (and you write more than anyone else) are variations on a theme: a one-note ad hominen attack.

Your argument does not grow in force by repetition or piling on additional illustrative vignettes. Savvy?

Urso January 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Who, prior_approval?

I agree.

Ntrust January 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

Jesus but you are a tendentious crank.

Brian Donohue January 11, 2013 at 9:54 am

Nice tribute Tyler.

Rich Berger January 11, 2013 at 10:23 am

I thought mulp was bad, but he pops up from time to time, does his rant and disappears. For some reason, p_a has a hard-on about GMU, and yes he is “a tendentious crank”. I have stopped reading his drivel, but it makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Bill January 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm


You are soliciting activities to deny others free speach and expression by characterizing speach you disagree with as rant, and calling persons cranks. You might want to think about your actions and statements more carefully, as this reflects more on you than the person you are chastising for their views.

Rich Berger January 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm

C’mon, Bill, this not up to your usual standards.

Rahul January 11, 2013 at 11:30 pm

@Bill, I’m curious, what’s your standard of a rant? Or do you consider that very word obnoxious. Assume you meant p_a and not mulp? mulp is fine.

Bill January 12, 2013 at 10:09 am

Rahul, I’m sorry, but I don’t use the word so I can’t define it. But, I do know that it is used in the context of not being able to present an argument or respond to one.

wiki January 11, 2013 at 11:18 am

Dear Tyler,

p_a’s incessant cranky trolling is a good case for eliminating all comments including mine. I couldn’t get through the comments this time to troll for the rare gems. Those like p_a or before him mulp or cbbb always seem to make posts in which he appears uninformative and irrelevant. The speed with which he posted to say ill of the dead after the first mention of Buchanan’s passing does little to respect the dead or this blog.

Please ban him so that he can have the pleasure of feeling persecuted and censored. He might even build a successful kool aid cult around it. A net win for Marginal Revolution and for M. p_a.

Go Kings, Go! (Lock-out Over!) January 11, 2013 at 12:38 pm

If you can’t be “uninformative and irrelevant”, what is the point of the internet?

(And, yes, the informative and relevant banners would come for me first…)

Yancey Ward January 11, 2013 at 11:35 am

I didn’t realize how mentally disturbed P.A. was. Probably because Tyler deleted all his previous comments.

Bill January 11, 2013 at 7:06 pm


You shouldn’t call people you disagree with mentally disturbed. You’re better than that.

Yancey Ward January 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Someone holding a grudge this long is disturbed, Bill.

Rahul January 11, 2013 at 11:31 pm

What are valid reasons to call someone “mentally disturbed” in your lexicon?

Bill January 12, 2013 at 10:10 am

Ask Yancey.

Yancey Ward January 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

I have always thought a 100% inheritance tax fully rebated on an equal, per capita basis might not be such a terrible social policy, but I wouldn’t want to support the government using it for general spending- the incentives might be quite horrifying.

LarryM January 11, 2013 at 12:49 pm

I wish Tyler would accept Matt’s challenge here, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/01/11/james_buchanan_a_plea_for_help.html, because it encapsualates my reaction to Buchanan as well.

I think a lot of libertarians (a) assume that liberals ignore public choice issues, and (b) assume that, once you accept public choice analysis, the obvious conclusion is libertarianism. I think both a and b are false. And pretty clearly Tyler knows this; some of his most controversial (among libertarians) comments have been regarding the issue that Matt focuses on: some public institutions are more successful than others at avoiding the kind of pitfalls that public choice economics predicts; why is that, and how can we develop public instituitons that best avoid those pitfalls.

I GET that many libertarans would (often quite explicitly) be uninterested in those questions, because they are opposed to even well functioning public institutions for reason other than public choice problems. But for those of us not so inclined, it seems to me that those are pretty vital questions, much more interesting than the, yes, banal observation that government officials are human too, film at 11.

I suspect that probably Buchanan’s most interesting insights are in the area of constitutional design, an area which I probably should explore further. My instincts are that a more “libertarian” constutition would, while limiting of course SOME abuses, result in a government that was still subject to all of the public choice problems pointed out by Buchanan, but even more oriented towards the interests of the monied elite. I see that as a dystopia. The only way to avoid that (apart of course from a less “libertarian” constitutional order) would IMO be anarchy, but obviously that is not something that Buchanan favored, and has problems of it’s own, to say the least.

Derek January 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I’ll take that seriously from a liberal who opposed the ACA.

Otherwise it is sanctimonious blather.

larrym January 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I’m a liberal – well, by your lights, I don’t think that label fully fits me – who had at least serious reservations about the ACA.

From a public choice perspective, though, the context regarding the ACA is acknowledgement that the status quo was ALREADY a public/private mish mash very much subject to rent seeking and related public choice problems. One can certainly argue that the ACA was a step backwards, not forwards, in that respect, but many supporters of the ACA (and likely their architects) were well aware of the public choice issues involved, and well aware of the impossibility of writing a law free of those constraints, but who thought (rightly or wrongly) that the law, warts and all, was on balance an improvement over the status quo.

I mean, OF COURSE the ACA was subject to all of the messy pressures of real world politics. Again, film at eleven. If you believe (at the same time) that (a) the present public/private system is badly broekn, but (b) that there are compelling reasons, particular to the health care field (never mind even the political dificulty of doing so) not to move strongly in a more private direction, then that’s the context you have to deal with, and you need to make the best of it. Personally I would have gone in a different direction, but it’s not fair to say (as I think many libertarians would) t that supporters of the act were either (a) blind to issues of public choice, or (b) corrupt.

derek January 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Fine. But don’t say that somehow it was done with a deep appreciation for public choice. Almost every aspect of the legislation is about handing some power to a group that the President wanted on side. It won’t do what it was intended to do, or even what it was sold as.

The question becomes why was it done that way fully cognizant of the dogs breakfast that will result.

larrym January 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

To finish my thought, IMO my challenge to Tyler would be: show me how Buchanan’s thinking on constitutional design addresses the issue of rent seeking by the monied elite, not just rent seeking by the voting masses.

LarryM January 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Forget about the term – the concept, it seems to me, is implicit in Buchanan’s thought. If not, it’s just further evidence that his thoughts are being poorly communicated bt his admirers.

larrym January 11, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Ultimately what’s the point of his analysis of the motivations of public officials if you don’t have rent seekers in the mix? Again, I may be missing something here, but I don’t think so. I mean, if the worst the self interested politician can do is rig the rules to benefit himself personally, the damage he can do is pretty limited, setting aside a pure kleptocracy. But if we’re talking about modern western democracies, the danger, pretty self evidently, is self interested politicians rigging the rules to benefit OTHERS (and gaining ancillary benefits for himself). A self interested politician who steals 1 million for himself is small potatoes; the danger is the self interested politician who helps a third party steal 1 billion in exchange (often implicit rather than explicit) for a 200 K consulting contract upon leaving public service.

And that’s where rent seeking comes into the mix (of course you can have successful rent seeking without self interested politicians, but, again absent a pure kleptocracy, self interested politicians without rent seeking seems to me to be of limited impact).

larrym January 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I wish you would be a little less oblique for the benefit of us non-insiders.

larrym January 11, 2013 at 2:15 pm

I mean, what I THINK you are saying is that, yes, Buchanan’s thinking by itself IS overated, and he gets credit for the more insightful work of Tullock. But a more explicit statement of same, with support, would be helpful

It also seems somewhat ancillary to Matt’s question.

larrym January 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm

The first comment on Matt’s post makes the above points better and more succcinctly than did I.

I’m not saying necessarily that this is some kind of unanswerable objection, but most libertarians don’t seem to address it because they really are not concerned nearly as much about rent seeking by the monied elites as they are by rent seeking by the masses. Tyler is an exception to this which is one reason he is such an interesting thinker. The left libertarians of course also address this, but they end up (IMO not coincidently) being much more inclined to anarchism, and opposed to minarchism, as a result.

Willitts January 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I have always appreciated p_a’s comments. I don’t recall whether I’ve agreed or disagreed with him.

I always disagree with mulp and his lengthy marxist tirades, but he is at least thoughtful.

CBBB was getting really annoying, but even he had worthwhile things to say from time to time.

I don’t think the disassociation with GMU is a big deal. I would think GMU would want it that way. I’m more upset with professors at public universities who use public resources and time for partisan political rants. And we all know who those people are.

There were times I thought my comments were deleted, and later I found out that they just moved to a second page. So I would be hesitant to claim censorship. On the other hand, it is a blog owner’s prerogative to determine whether a comment goes beyond the bounds of propriety. Personal comments could lead to defamation suits which are, at the very least, costly and time consuming.

So I think everyone needs to take a deep breath here. Even if p_a has a personal grudge, it appears to me that TC and AT have been more than accommodating in entertaining his views here, and I for one find his comments enjoyable. I do mot consider him a troll. IMO.

Rich Berger January 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm

What a tangled thread we weave! I do love reckless invective.

Claudia January 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

Take the best (of someone) and leave the rest. And be blessed when the best of those around you far exceeds your own, and yet are accompanied by some visible flaws/oddities so you are inspired, but not dejected. I hear this above the fold. I think we got a bit distracted below the fold, but that’s the cost of open exchange sometimes.

Larry Siegel January 13, 2013 at 4:33 am

No one who has a handicapped child, or who has a friend or relative with one, would ever contemplate a 100% inheritance tax.

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