James Buchanan (1919-2013), Appreciations

James M. Buchanan Jr.Here a number of appreciations and memories of Jim Buchanan. Steve Horwitz has a good, concise summary of some of his intellectual contributions:

Buchanan’s work changed political economy in fundamental ways.  Thanks to him and his colleagues, three things are true:  No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of his contributions to constitutional political economy.

I agree entirely with Robert Higg’s portrait:

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.

…. 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.

The NYTimes quotes Tyler:

Over the years since Dr. Buchanan won the Nobel, much of what he predicted has played out. Government is bigger than ever. Tax revenue has fallen far short of public programs’ needs. Public and private borrowing has become a way of life. Politicians still act in their own interests while espousing the public good, and national deficits have soared into the trillions.

In a commentary in The New York Times in March 2011, Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason, said his colleague Dr. Buchanan had accurately forecast that deficit spending for short-term gains would evolve into “a permanent disconnect” between government outlays and revenue.

“We end up institutionalizing irresponsibility in the federal government, the largest and most central institution in our society,” Dr. Cowen wrote. “As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan’s essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal our colleague Don Boudreaux also points to Jim’s work on the true burden of the debt–stop the we owe it to ourselves madness!  Lars Christensen looks at one of Buchanan’s many interesting ideas, the brick standard for monetary policy. Randall Holcombe remembers his teacherThe Washington Post and Bloomberg offer useful commentaries as does political scientist Tim Groseclose.

Of course you should not ignore Buchanan’s own writings which spans more than 20 volumes, 10 of which are available online. Buchanan’s classic Politics without Romance offers a short introduction as does his Nobel lecture.

Buchanan’s Nobel lecture illustrates why, even today, many other economists don’t get Buchanan. While other economists are looking for “efficiency” and “optimality” in models Buchanan had a very different concept of welfare economics.

[Buchanan]…sought to bring all available scientific analysis to bear in helping to resolve the continuing question of social order: How can we live together in peace, prosperity, and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values?

On a personal note, I was fortunate to have Buchanan both as a teacher and as a colleague. He founded the Center for Study of Public Choice that today I direct.

Buchanan wrote not for the hour or the day but for the age and his influence will continue far into the long run.


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