Nobel Prize Winning Economist James Buchanan, R.I.P.

6ffb0368d10941c4da1f5a8eb3c58262b790 Nobel Prize Winning Economist James Buchanan, R.I.P.

Nobel prize winning economist and public choice economics
pioneer James Buchanan
is dead, at age 93.His insights about how the same incentives shape government
actors as shape private actors formed a vital part of the modern
libertarian worldview.Here are portions of what I wrote about him in my libertarian
movement history,
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern
American Libertarian Movement:
In 1986 James Buchanan….earned the [Nobel Prize]. Buchanan’s
fascination with constitutional rules and procedures, and his
apparent belief that any result that comes from them, if they
themselves are fairly and properly set up, is normatively
acceptable, makes him seem often less than fully libertarian, but
he in his own mind had an intellectual project with a moral aspect
that inclined him toward respect for the individual and limitation
of the power of the state.
Whatever the result of arguments over his specific libertarian
bonafides, he and his old partner Gordon Tullock, with whom he did
the early foundational work in the school of economics that has
come to be known as Public Choice, have unquestionably given
libertarians a valuable intellectual and ideological tool. Buchanan
and Tullock helped build a professional consensus and a rigorous
scholarly apparatus around the notion that—despite what many
economic professionals used to assume—the behavior of government
agents can fruitfully be modeled the same way we model individual
behavior in markets; that is, as largely motivated by maximizing
the personal utility of the government worker or politician, not
some empyrean concept of the “public good” or an overall “social
welfare function” that a technical economist could calculate.
As Tullock explains it, “the different attitude toward
government that arises from public choice does have major effects
on our views on what policies government should undertake or can
carry out. In particular, it makes us much less ambitious about
relying on government to provide certain services. No student of
public choice would feel that the establishment of a national
health service in the United States would mean that the doctors
would work devotedly to improve the health of the
The Buchanan/Tullock public choice approach also came to be
known as the “Virginia School” of political economy because of
Buchanan’s formative years teaching at the University of Virginia.
(Buchanan had been, unsurprisingly, an economics student at the
University of Chicago.) The Volker Fund was one of the early
supporters of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political
Economy and Social Philosophy that Buchanan ran there, and helped
them bring in other libertarian thinkers such as Hayek and Italian
legal scholar Bruno Leoni for half-year stints. Buchanan sums up
the libertarian implications of his research program: “The Virginia
emphasis was, from the outset, on the limits of political process
rather than on any schemes to use politics to correct for market

….As with Friedman and Hayek, many were upset that someone
with his unpopular libertarian ideology had won the [Nobel] prize.
Buchanan understands why his ideological adversaries might object
to the “moral passion” at the heart of his political economy: His
program “has advanced our scientific understanding of social
interaction, but the science has been consistently applied to the
normatively chosen question: How can individuals live in social
order while preserving their own liberties?” 
Steve Horwitz
eulogizes Buchanan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians,
where he notes:
Understanding public choice theory is indispensable for
understanding why good intentions are not enough to make the case
for government intervention.  If we want to understand why
decades of government solutions have not been very successful at
improving the condition of the least well off, public choice theory
and Buchanan’s work is the place to start.
obituary from Bloomberg.Other interesting bits of Buchaniana: David Henderson reviews
Buchanan’s memoir Better than
Plowing in our January 1993 issue; Edward Younkins
wrote a very good tight
summation of Buchanan’s thought. Iconoclastic economist Bryan
Caplan notes how Buchanan admitted his contractarian political
philosophy was an attempt
to justify a myth.

Read article here: 

Nobel Prize Winning Economist James Buchanan, R.I.P.

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