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Nobel Economist James M. Buchanan, 1919-2013

James M. Buchanan, a great economist and great man, died today in Blacksburg, Virginia, at age 93.

He and Gordon Tullock are the creators of Public Choice theory, which argues that tools of economics should be used to study politics.

Before Buchanan and Tullock, the following would be a standard exercise of an economics researcher:  The researcher would identify a “market failure” in a particular activity. For instance, he might show that, because a factory emits pollutants, it produces more than the socially optimal amount of output. The standard solution of the researcher would then be to argue that a bureaucrat should be given the power to regulate the output of the factory.

Buchanan and Tullock pointed out that such research ignores standard economic tools when analyzing the bureaucrat. That is, economists would typically assume that the bureaucrat would ignore his own interests and work only for the public good. Buchanan and Tullock argued that if economists applied their own tools to the bureaucrat—and assumed that, like any other economic actor, he has personal motives that may differ from that which is optimal for society—then they’d realize that other problems arise from giving such power to the bureaucrat. For instance, he might accept bribes or succumb to laziness. Either could cause him not to enforce the optimal level of regulation.

Just as previous economists had demonstrated “market failures,” Buchanan and Tullock demonstrated that the typical solution to a market failure could cause a “government failure.” As they argued, when you apply economic tools to government actors, you see that the government solutions can end up being worse than the market failures.

Buchanan has a long body of scholarly work that continues to influence not just economists but also political scientists, including me.

Buchanan helped found the Journal of Public Choice, where I and lots of other economists and political scientists occasionally publish articles. He also helped establish the Public Choice Society, a group of a few hundred scholars who meet at an annual conference each Spring. Moreover, he helped to establish the Public Choice Center, a group of economists at George Mason University who devote much of their research to studying public choice problems. The group includes some highly respected scholars, including Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Don Boudreaux, Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson, Thomas Stratmann, and several others, including Gordon Tullock, who is an emeritus scholar of the Center.

Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Buchanan lived most of his life in Virginia. Those who knew him were quick to call him a southern gentleman.

One of the greatest honors of my life was once when I was compared to him. At a meeting of the Public Choice Society, an audience member kept interrupting a speaker. The chair of the session was a young professor who was obviously uncomfortable about the interruptions but unsure what to do about them. After one interruption, I spoke up, “Many panels don’t allow comments from the audience until all of the speakers have made their presentations.  Could we get a ruling from the chair?” The chair said that he agreed with me, and the interrupter stopped. After the panel, Mark Crain, who, at the time, was a scholar at the Public Choice Center, told me, “You’re like James Buchanan. He absolutely hates rudeness like that.” 

“You’re like James Buchanan” – it’s difficult for a scholar to receive a higher compliment.  

  1. King Banaian
    C

    Thanks.  I saw Prof. Buchanan at Public Choice many times, and the description of “southern gentleman” is more than appropriate.  My first academic conference presentation (30 years ago this spring) had Prof. Buchanan sitting in the front row.  I had scripted the first three sentences and then was to go a little more loosely into my presentation.  I saw him and froze.  His writings were all over my dissertation.  Luckily I got just a smile from him and was able to finish. 

    It’s not an overstatement to say he made over the entire study of economics by bringing the motivations of policymakers into the analysis (who up to then had been treated as omniscient, omnipotent observers.)  So it didn’t just change the study of politics or public finance.  Buchanan changed the game for many of us who didn’t think of ourselves as studying politics. 

  2. Goldgeller

    Very well said. I must admit it– while I’m aware of James Buchanan and his work, I haven’t actually read him. 

    In any case, once you read about “public choice” it seems so obvious and intuitive that you think “how could people have not known?” Was public choice readily accepted at the time? 

    Also, my “story” regarding James Buchanan: I was reading a review of Paul Krugman’s work on Amazon and a reviewer mentioned that they also liked James Buchanan amd Thomas Sowell’s writings on economics. Well I’d heard that James Buchanan was important. I’d never heard of Thomas Sowell. I’d never read any of them. I went to the book store that day and they didn’t have James Buchanan. So I bought the Thomas Sowell book instead. I never looked back! So there– James Buchanan set me on the road to being a conservative. (At the time I just “left” liberalism and was  “drifting” politically.)

  3. lostingotham

    I met James Buchanan as an undergraduate at a Institute for Humane Studies event in Virginia in the summer of 2001.  I had just discovered public choice theory and was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with its author about its application to some work I was doing on the failures of the Russian government and resulting rise of the mafia in that country.  I am still amazed at the enormous generosity he, the winner of a Nobel prize, displayed in spending nearly two hours patiently answering my silly questions and offering an insightful critique of my very inept and incomplete thoughts on my topic.  His gentle wit and obvious joy in life put me very much in mind of Mark Twain.  The world is a darker place for his leaving.

  4. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    lostingotham: I met James Buchanan as an undergraduate at a Institute for Humane Studies event in Virginia in the summer of 2001.  I had just discovered public choice theory and was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with its author about its application to some work I was doing on the failures of the Russian government and resulting rise of the mafia in that country.  I am still amazed at the enormous generosity he, the winner of a Nobel prize, displayed in spending nearly two hours patiently answering my silly questions and offering an insightful critique of my very inept and incomplete thoughts on my topic.  His gentle wit and obvious joy in life put me very much in mind of Mark Twain.  The world is a darker place for his leaving. · 35 minutes ago

    I had the privilege of meeting him back during this era (including, perhaps, at the same event) and he was great. The Calculus of Consent was one of the few books that changed the way I view the world — great, accessible read.

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