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Thursday, January 10, 2013

James M. Buchanan, 1919-2013

by Clifford F. Thies

James Buchanan, co-founder along with Gordon Tullock of the public choice school of economics, passed away on January 9th, at the age of 93. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

Buchanan's formal contributions to economics involve the formation and behavior of collectives, rent-seeking (or, predation and defense), the strengths and weaknesses of governments relative to markets, voting behavior including the voting behavior of legislators in representative democracies, and the design of constitutions. Among his particular concerns were special interests and deficit spending. The overall thrust of his work was to reduce government from the deified institution worshipped by progressives, to a genuinely human institution which, if well designed, can serve the interests of those governed by it, but which is potentially abusive of those interests.

In keeping with his effort to re-connect economics and political science (our discipline was originally called "political economy"), Buchanan strove to break down artificial demarcations between economics and other fields. Reflecting his effort, the Nobel Prize committee today includes members who are from the other social sciences. A recent recipient of the Nobel Prize was Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist, whom Buchanan befriended early during her career. Which brings me to another thing about Buchanan. James Buchanan opposed the "old boy" network. Indeed, one of his relocations was due specifically to his efforts to considered talented people regardless of race or gender back in what seems, today, to have been a totally different era in our country's history.

Other qualities of James Buchanan were that he was a genuine Southern gentleman in an era when gentlemanliness seems to be in such short supply. He treated his graduate students like colleagues rather than indentured servants. He was committed to reasoned discourse when the profession seems increasingly obsessed with mathematical analysis. James Buchanan was a happy warrior, advancing the cause over many decades, building friendships, encouraging others, and all the while enjoying life.

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