Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

09 January, 2013

James M. Buchanan (1919-2013)

By Aaron
09 January, 2013

Embedded Video: "Daring To Be Different - Reflections on the Life and Work of James Buchanan"

James Buchanan, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for economics and a co-founder of the Public Choice field of political economy, has died at the age of 93. 

So prolific and wide-ranging was Buchanan as a scholar (his Collected Works span more than 20 volumes) that, despite his considerable influence on me, I must admit that I've barely nibbled around the edges of his writing. He is likely best known for books such as The Calculus of Consent (co-authored with Gordon Tullock), Cost and Choice, and Public Principles of Public Debt - the titles of which are unlikely to excite you but these writings have had a profound influence on the social sciences since their publication. Among my own favorite Buchanan pieces - and among his shortest - are "Afraid to Be Free" and "Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence," both of which offer that rare combination of profundity and accessibility for a non-technical reader. (For a sampling of Buchanan's influence on my thinking, see here and here.)

And goodness, no one since William Faulkner has offered a better combination of Southern accent and debonaire mustache. As evidence, I submit to the jury the following exchange between Buchanan and fellow George Mason University economist Walter Williams:

Embedded Video: Walter Williams and James Buchanan on the Constitution's erosion

Buchanan described the field of Public Choice as a view of "politics without romance." Believe it or not, there was once a time when most people looked at government as a noble institution filled with "public servants" who devoted their every waking minute to making the world a utopia spritzed with subtle hints of lavender and cinnamon. Hell, I suspect that this Schoolhouse Rocks! portrayal of the political process still holds the day in most high school civics classes - I certainly got such a romantic story in my 11th grade government class back in the mid-1990s. 

Buchanan, however, pointed out that "The Government" is nothing but a collection of individuals who, in their private lives, are motivated by self-interest. No moral transformation takes place when these folks enter political office. The currency may change - i.e. a salesman is motivated chiefly by the financial bottom line while a politician may seek power or fame or adoration - but individuals, regardless of their field, tend to pursue the greatest amount of whatever it is that motivates them.  Why not apply the same standards of economic analysis to political officials and government workers as we apply to, say, prostitutes (my apologies to prostitutes for that association)? 

Not surprisingly, when a titan such as Buchanan passes, barrels of digital ink are quickly rerouted for the writing of tributes. A few highlights:

I first learned of Buchanan's death from Steven Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University, who writes:

No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of constitutional political economy.

Robert Higgs, of the Independent Institute, is among many who have praised Buchanan's skepticism of overly-technical economics:

...the hallmark of Buchanan’s work from beginning to end was a deep seriousness of purpose and procedure that not many economists have matched in the past century. Unlike the typical mainstream economist, Jim was never just fooling around, toying with a tweaked model or a trivial, throw-away idea. To a rare degree, he kept his eyes focused on the prize of true economic understanding. When I began to read and ponder his writings seriously in the 1980s, I developed a tremendous respect for his view of what markets are and how they work. A more formally inclined economist would have had great difficulty in achieving his depth of understanding; the math and the technicalities have a way of overwhelming the substance of an economic analysis, and ofttimes of obliterating it entirely. To my knowledge, Jim never committed this professional sin.

Of course, leave it to the The New York Times to do the man wrong:

James M. Buchanan, a scholar and author whose analyses of economic and political decision-making won the 1986 Nobel in economic sciences and shaped a generation of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government, died on Wednesday in Blacksburg, Va. He was 93.        

Nevermind that Buchanan once wrote a book entitled Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism. For the NYT, there are evidently only two political camps and if the left dislikes Buchanan's ideas (which are indeed inconvenient for Big Government types), then he must be a right-wing conservative. This despite the fact that both the Democrats and Republicans are, as Richard Epstein puts it, merely "two members of the same statist party fighting over whose friends will get favors" - that is, equal opportunity offenders when viewed through the Public Choice prism.

Which brings me to Radley Balko who, at The Huffington Post, writes:

Conservatives have always bought into public choice theory when it comes to paper-pushing bureaucrats. But when it come to law enforcement, they often have the same sort of blind faith in the good intentions and public-mindedness of public servants that the left has for, say, EPA bureaucrats. But public choice problems are as prevalent in law enforcement as they are in any other field of government work. And you could make a strong argument that it's more important that we recognize and compensate for the incentive problems among cops and prosecutors because the consequences of bad decisions can be quite a bit more dire.

Bottom line: if you have any opinions whatsoever about politics, the role of government, or economics, do yourself a solid and acquaint yourself with the work of James Buchanan. And be thankful that you shared a planet with the man for as long as you did. 

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