Donald Boudreaux: James Buchanan, economist for the ages |
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Donald Boudreaux: James Buchanan, economist for the ages

Donald J. Boudreaux

One hundred years ago this month, James Buchanan was born on a Tennessee farm. No, not the 15th U.S. president. (That James Buchanan was from Pennsylvania.) The James Buchanan to whom I refer won the 1986 Nobel Prize in economics and taught for most of his career in Virginia, most notably at George Mason University.

Jim — as he was called by those of us who knew him — was one of the 20th century’s greatest economists. His collected works fill more than 20 volumes. And from his first published article in 1949 until his death in 2013, he worked non-stop.

A scholar to his core, Jim eschewed party politics. His unrelentingly quest was to gain a fuller understanding of the more or less permanent truths about the economy, government and society. He called such truths “relatively absolute absolutes.” And Jim’s success as a teacher, along with his tirelessness at lecturing around the world, testify to the importance that he placed on sharing his understanding with others.

Above all, that understanding centered on the eternal truth that trusting human beings with unchecked power is unwise.

Among Jim’s few heroes was James Madison. Jim admired Madison’s realism about government — it’s never run by angels — and his creativity at crafting constitutional rules to prevent government from threatening individual liberty. Like Madison, Jim doubted neither the need for government nor the desirability of grounding it in democratic institutions. But also like Madison, Jim never suffered the delusion that the only check necessary to keep government within proper bounds is that it be elected democratically.

Jim is best known for showing that we can better understand political outcomes when we examine these using the same tools that economists employ to get a better understanding of private markets. Individuals acting politically as voters, politicians and bureaucrats are no less (or more) self- interested and prone to error than are individuals acting privately as consumers, entrepreneurs and workers.

Stated so straightforwardly, this Madisonian insight from Jim seems trite. But economists and political scientists were surprisingly reluctant to use it in their work. A shocking amount of social-science research was done on the unstated assumption that Madison was wrong to warn that government is not run by angels.

Buchanan won his Nobel Prize because of his doggedness at demonstrating, in hundreds of articles and many books, the reality that human self- interest does not disappear in people who are employed by the state.

Jim’s most famous book was co-written in 1962 with long-time collaborator Gordon Tullock (who himself almost won a Nobel Prize). “The Calculus of Consent” is a virtuoso performance in using the tools of economics to explain when political action is desirable and when it isn’t. This book also provides path-breaking insights into the benefits of constitutions and how to craft constitutional rules in order that they serve their purposes reliably.

The cascade of research unleashed by Jim Buchanan’s fertile mind now goes by the name “public choice” — or, as Jim increasingly liked to call it, partly in honor of James Madison, “Virginia Political Economy.”

Contrary to some uninformed commentary, this scholarship is not anti- democratic. Quite the opposite. Exploring for ways to prevent interest groups and momentary passions from dominating government’s agenda, public-choice scholars aim to enhance as much as possible the voice and dignity of each individual.

Let’s raise our glasses to toast the memory of this great scholar on the centenary of his birth.

Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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