Musgrave and Buchanan

David Warsh writes about the pioneering public-finance economist Richard Musgrave and a series of debates he had with fellow Wicksellian, yet rival, public-choice pioneer James Buchanan.

In 1998, Hans-Werner Sinn, the leading economist at the University of Munich, invited Musgrave and his arch-rival in the study of political economy, James Buchanan, father of the relentlessly skeptical study of “public choice,” to a carefully organized five-day debate.

The scholars took turns stating their positions. They responded to one another. They took questions from the floor. Then they restated their views more narrowly. The results were published in 1999 as Public Finance and Public Choice: Two Contrasting Visions of the State. Their debate was a textbook example of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently called “adversarial collaboration.” So useful are both lenses for different purposes that it is not easy to form an opinion about who “won.”

It is, however, very likely that the lectures are the most important delivered at the University of Munich since the great Max Weber gave his farewell addresses on politics and science there in 1918. Long after the results of the next election have become old news – the next 40 years’ elections – the exchange between Musgrave and Buchanan will still be fresh.


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