David R. Henderson  

Better Than Plowing

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That's the title of James Buchanan's autobiography. I reviewed it in Reason in January 1993. Much of my review covers ground that will be familiar to those who have been reading the various blogs on Jim Buchanan over the last few days. So I'll quote two paragraphs from my review that won't be as familiar.

One of the book's chapters is devoted entirely to Buchanan's favorite quotes from others. Of these, the three I like the most are: "You and I may both believe in planning, but my plan may be to kill you" (economist David McCord Wright). "To talk of states as if they were persons endowed with the spiritual impulses and aspirations of human beings and therefore morally accountable, is a piece of pure abstraction for which not even Hegel can be held responsible. It is a habit of modern journalism, catering to that mixture of vulgar passion and dominant materialism which renders unto Caesar the things that are God's because Caesar can be bribed" (W.A. Orton). "You have to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man would be such a fool" (George Orwell).

Writing autobiographies is a new art form for economists. The only other one I know of by a recent American economist is George Stigler's Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist. I actually enjoyed Stigler's more because he managed to give an exciting story about his intellectual discoveries. But Stigler did not let the reader in on his own thinking about matters other than economics or on his feelings. Buchanan tried something more difficult. He wrote about his reasons for taking various actions, and he is just introspective enough to make me want more. He even writes, "I have never experienced psychological hangups," although he wisely hedges by immediately saying, "at least at any level of rational recognition." We all have hangups, and surely his about wealthy people counts. Still, Buchanan took a risk by exposing his personal side. For that he deserves credit.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (3 to date)
Bostonian writes:

Some other autobiographies by economists are

A Personal Odyssey (2000) by Thomas Sowell

Up from the Projects: An Autobiography (2010) by Walter E. Williams

Two Lucky People (1998) by Milton Friedman and Rose D. Friedman .

I read Sowell's and Friedman's and liked them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bostonian,
Thanks. I've read the last two and reviewed them. Not that you were correcting me, but notice that I made my statement in the review well before these were published.

Agree that Stigler's is great, and the Friedman's too (though if one is interested in the economics, just read Milton's contributions and skip Rose's).

Sowell's earlier auto-bio, 'Black Education, Myths and Tragedies', is also a rollicking good read. I prefer it to his later one.

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