David R. Henderson  

Further Notes on James Buchanan

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In my haste last night to post on Jim Buchanan, I neglected to point out that a large percent of his work is on-line for free at Liberty Fund's Online Library of Economics and Liberty. Go here and scroll down alphabetically to Buchanan.

At breakfast this morning in D.C., I read the Washington Post, something I don't do every day. There was a pretty good article by Matt Schudel on Buchanan. Here's an excerpt from the piece that I found striking:

"His big contribution," Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Wednesday, "is that he got our profession to think of government policymakers not as platonic philosophers but as interested parties in their own right who are furthering their own views, at least some extent."

I think that's a nice summary of one of Buchanan's--and also Gordon Tullock's--biggest contributions. I would also say, though, that we aren't there yet. A majority of economists who think about policy--and a large percent of even libertarian and conservative ones--often write as if government policymakers are "platonic philosophers" who need only be persuaded about what's good for the people.

There is one statement in the piece, though, that I take issue with:

Even Dr. Buchanan's staunchest admirers admitted that he was forbidding and hardly had a warm personality.

"Forbidding" in the sense of not suffering fools gladly? Probably yes. But not having a warm personality? That was not my experience over many years of occasional interactions. My first experience was when I wrote him, in 1971, a fan letter about his book, Public Principles of Public Debt, and he wrote back, within a week, addressing a question I had asked and even telling me that if I updated the data in the Appendix, I might get an article out of in the National Tax Journal. That strikes me as warm. Moreover, I never think of Jim, and probably never will, without thinking of that twinkle in his eye that suggested that just beneath the surface was someone who really enjoyed a good laugh. And I often saw him laugh--and not at people but at the circumstances, the humorous insight, etc. Jim didn't have any children. To a large extent, though, many of us 20 to 60 years younger, were his children. And, although he never, as far as I know, told any of us that he loved us--that was not what people in his generation did--I felt that love.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)

Buchanan was one of those rare economists whose reputation didn't exceed his accomplishments. It would be a better world if more people were aware of his work.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
Buchanan was one of those rare economists whose reputation didn't exceed his accomplishments.

I just checked Krugman's blog; he has four posts on the platinum coin, but nothing about Buchanan's passing. Of course, he once admitted he'd not only never read any Public Choice literature, he had no plans to do so.

Not such a bad epitaph; The economist Paul Krugman was afraid to read.

Dwight R. Lee writes:

I appreciate your response to the comment that Buchanan was forbidding and hardly had a warm personality. It is true that he was rather reserved at times, particular when first meeting someone. That was certainly the feeling I had when I approached him at the 1975 Mont Pelerin meeting at Hillsdale College as a complete stranger to tell him how an article of his had led to one of my first publications. But when I next met him a year later when he visited the University of Colorado, and had some time to visit with him (a colleague of mine and I picked him up at the airport), he was very friendly and quite willing to read an article I was working on at the time, sending me back very detailed and helpful comments within a week of his visit. And my experience with him as a colleague after I went to the Public Choice Center (as a visitor in 1978-79, and then from 1980-85) makes me question the view than he may not have suffered fools gladly. Fool is a relative concept, and most of us have more foolish ideas than Jim did. Certainly I did. But Jim comments on my ideas, even those that were foolish, or at best trivially obvious) never came across as dismissive (although I did dismiss some of them myself after his comments) and were often helpful in leading me to related ideas that were more promising. The Springer volume The Origins of Public Choice: The Legacy of Buchanan and Tullock that I edited and which is just now being released is full of comments from students (whether formally or otherwise) on how helpful and encouraging Jim was with his comments on their scholarly efforts. Your chapter and Richard McKenzie's are excellent examples of this.

E. Barandiaran writes:


In Jim and Gordon's work, Public Choice had two foundations.

1. In addition to market exchange, there are other forms people cooperate and economics must focus on the study of all forms of cooperation.

2. Since our nature is the same across all our activities, when we study how we cooperate in markets or in any other form we should assume accordingly.

In extending their work, we have to deal with how conflict limits and obfuscates cooperation, and how the limited understanding of our nature force us to put emphasis on different dimensions of our personality depending on the context of our decisions and actions.

Ken B writes:


And, although he never, as far as I know, told any of us that he loved us--that was not what people in his generation did--I felt that love.

Revealed preference is always more reliable.

Politicians tell us they love us all the time. There's a pleasing irony in this particular contrast.

Becky Hargrove writes:

I definitely need to start making better use of your online library, especially for Buchanan's work. What resonates for me is the value he attached to people finding their best possible interactions with one another, instead of always settling for some ill thought through notion of how economic settings should exist.

Ken B writes:

A fitting tribute would be a short list of good books on Public Choice with the level indicated.

I liked The End of Government by J Rauch, which is an extended introduction by example.

As usual the Telegraph obit is the best;

The television comedy series Yes Minister was based on Buchanan’s public choice theory, revealing a world of politics as based on calculation, spin and cynical self-interest.
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