James M. Buchanan 1919-2013: A Personal Appreciation

I learned this morning that James Buchanan had passed away in Blacksburg, Virginia at the age of 93. I have had the privilege of knowing him personally for over 30 years. Like many other people who have incorporated public choice into their own thinking, I count him as one of a handful of academics whose core insights have shaped the research of the next generation. 

Jim’s economics were, to some extent, a reflection of his own hardscrabble, no-nonsense background. Many academics have been born, as it were, with a silver spoon in their mouth. Jim was decidedly not one of them.  

Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he graduated from Middle Tennessee State Teachers College in 1940, after which he received his MA from the University of Tennessee. Jim was defiantly proud of his local origins, and, although he went on to receive his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, he always viewed elite, Ivy League institutions with a certain degree of distrust, thinking that they deadened the will and softened the intellect.

On one occasion, I can recall him saying how proud he was that he had never taught at places that sported that fine patina. His thundering judgment on these matters what that he wanted to improve the reputation of the institutions with which he was associated. He never wanted to bask in the reflected glory of any institutions where he taught.

He showed that insight in everything that he did. I still recall the 10 days or so that I spent with Jim and Gordon Tullock at Virginia Tech in the summer of 1979, when he invited me to give a set of lectures on various law and economics questions. Doing those talks was an experience of a lifetime, as Jim was relentless and Gordon was cutting. I counted down the minutes of each session, hoping to survive the potential wrath of my elders. 

There were, moreover, some real intellectual differences. I approached these topics from a somewhat different perspective than Jim, and can recall the tenacity with which he questioned every assumption that I made about how the legal system was put together. In particular, he was quite suspicious of the old common law rule, followed in virtually every society, that possession is the root of title. Jim thought that these randomized processes could not explain how a coherent system of property rights could be organized in what he regarded as a somewhat mysterious natural law tradition.

In this instance, I had a little bit of private revenge from a behavioral perspective. After the morning session at which I spoke on this rule, the entire group of twenty-odd people went to a restaurant where we were all seated around one large table. Quite without reflection, everyone put a jacket or a purse on their seat before going to the buffet line. No one moved the marker that any one put by a particular chair. When we came back to the afternoon session, I took a bit of pleasure in noting that the first possession rule worked perfectly well for a group of individuals who were intellectually hostile to it. 

As I continued to reflect on this instance years later, it became clear to me that my point was only partially true. The seating arrangements did not take place in a state of nature, and there was an implicit distributional constraint that meant that there was only one chair per customer. But even with that modification, it was clear, to take a leaf from Ronald Coase’s essay on the Theory of the Firm, that it was easier to use convention to organize the seating than any price system that started with bids for preferred places. And for good reason. The bidding system would make no sense unless you knew who was sitting next to you, and by the time all the interdependencies were organized, the food would have been cold. Buchanan, as I recall, did chuckle at the account, but I do not think that I moved him away from his general worldview that political systems had to start with systematic constitutional commitments.  

It was this peculiar combination of intellectual toughness and moral conviction that made him into the great scholar that he was. I can recall that, at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Stockholm, Jim, now close to 90, gave one of his stern lectures about the dangers of the deficit, which followed neatly from his public choice approach that self-interested legislatures who represent the majority had every incentive, if the rules of the game allowed it, to tax their more productive neighbors in order to enrich themselves: he surely could have been thinking of the policies of the Obama administration. But Jim was not content with that cold and detached analysis of human nature, which derided the “romantics,” as he called them, who thought that legislatures put on their better selves when charged with public duties. He was also prepared in Biblical terms to denounce public deficits as a form of “sin,” which put him at sharp variance with all too many Keynesian devotees who carry such sway over public debates over many of these issues.

It was, of course, just this deep set of convictions that set him on the road to intellectual greatness with the publication in 1962 of The Calculus of Consent by the University of Michigan Press, which he wrote with his close friend and collaborator Gordon Tullock, whom I am proud to count as an alumnus of the University of Chicago.

In preparing for this short tribute, I reread the preface of the book, which shows in a powerful way the close connection between Buchanan’s intellectual work and his own agrarian past.  Buchanan was a risk taker in all things, and knew that his book with Tullock was interdisciplinary insofar as it sought to use the individualistic tools of economics to describe the imperfectly cooperative and contentious world of politics. But in words that reflect his general orientation, he and Tullock used an apt farming metaphor to describe the risk-reward calculus. It is worth putting an excerpt of that prose here, to show the relentless capacity that Buchanan and Tullock had to turn every observation into an apt parable about economic theory, :

 [This] book and the work that it embodies seem closely analogous to any genuine “fence-row” effort. As almost every farmer knows, there attach both benefits and costs to fence-row plowing. In the first place, by fact of its being there, the soil along the fence row is likely to be more fertile, more productive, when properly cultivated, than that which is to be found in the more readily accessible center of the field. This potential advantage tends to be offset, however, by the enhanced probability of error and accident along the borders of orthodoxy. Many more stumps and boulders are likely to be encountered, and the sheer unfamiliarity of the territory makes unconscious and unintended diversions almost inevitable.

To those two characteristic features we must add a third, one that Robert Frost has impressed even upon those who know nothing of our agrarian metaphor. “Good fences make good neighbors,” and neighborly relationships stand in danger of being disturbed by furrowing too near the border line. Orthodox practitioners in both politics and economics will perhaps suggest that we respect the currently established order of the social sciences. We can only hope that the first of these three features outweighs the latter two.

In Buchanan’s case, we have the final answer on that question. He was one of the few thinkers who was able to develop and defend his own worldview.  It is possible to criticize Buchanan on the simple ground that the relentless forces of self-interest that he sees in politics do not operate with equal force on all people at all times. But it is not possible to wave away the difficulties that he helped articulate by pretending that some mystical qualities of dispassion and objectivity take over all individuals who are trusted with power.

Jim was keenly aware that most governments failed because they were ripped apart by faction, violence, and intrigue. Jim himself was totally incorruptible in everything that he said and did.  I would wager a very large sum of money that if he had ever held public office, his conduct would count as a partial refutation of the theory that he did so much to advance.

  1. Goldgeller

    That was very well said! I enjoyed reading it. 

  2. Gray Brendle

    Awesome insight into the mind of an original American thinker. Thank you Professor Epstein for your reflections!

  3. Eugen Richter

    Poignant conclusion to an enlightening eulogy regarding a great thinker. The relative scarcity of honest individuals like Jim Buchanan is a sufficient basis to give credence to public choice theory. May he rest in peace. Thank you, Professor Epstein.

  4. Mama Toad

    Thank you for sharing your comments, memories, and insights about your friend with us.

    May he rest in peace.