limits of human talent

A few James Buchanan reminiscences

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.