In Memoriam

James Buchanan, 1919-2013

A colleague recalls the great Nobel prize winning economist who died on January 9.

By 1.11.13

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I last saw Jim Buchanan three months ago, at a Liberty Fund conference held to celebrate The Calculus of Consent, which he had written with Gordon Tullock 50 years earlier. The participants were mostly Jim’s former students, now getting on themselves in years, all with distinguished careers in the field of Public Choice which with Gordon he created. Everyone knew that, at 92 years of age, Jim would not be with us too much longer, and the conference was as much an expression of friendship and love as it was a discussion of ideas.

That wasn’t what Jim wanted, though. He was too feisty for that, and went out of his way to tell us again and again that we hadn’t really understood him. It was like the moment in Annie Hall where the show-off in the cinema queue holds forth about Marshall McCluhan until Marshall McCluhan steps out of the queue to say, “You don’t really understand me at all!”

Jim’s first commitment was to truth, and that took him on an intellectual and geographic odyssey. He taught first at the University of Virginia, and it was there that he and Gordon developed their ideas about Public Choice. The core idea here is that people in government, bureaucrats and politicians, respond to economic incentives and that these are less than perfectly aligned with the interests of the governed. That wasn’t a novel idea. It wouldn’t have surprised Max Weber 40 years earlier. What was novel was the rigor of their theories, advanced by sophisticated economists. What was even more startling was that Jim and Gordon were writing during the high tide of 1960s liberalism, and their ideas shocked their properly left-wing colleagues in Charlottesville, who assumed that government always acted from the most benign of motives. Jim and Gordon were undoubtedly smart people, but was it possible they were actually right-wing!

Rebuffed at U. Va., the two moved to Blacksburg, where they stayed until another quarrel with administrators brought them to George Mason University, where they remained until their retirement. Their years at Fairfax and Arlington were happy ones, and the Center Jim founded at Mason nurtured some of the smartest of the new generation of economists.

The Calculus of Consent created a special discipline in itself: Constitutional Political Economy, which examines how government fares under different constitutional arrangements. What is little understood is the way in which Jim and Gordon developed these ideas at the same time as and through discussions with Harvard’s John Rawls. They ended up in different places, but the starting point was the same: what kind of government would people choose for themselves, as an abstract matter? For Rawls, the answer was Obama-style socialism; for Jim and Gordon the answer was to be found in the thoughts of the Framers, and Madison in particular. Halfway through his project Jim read The Federalist Papers and realized that the questions that interested him were the same ones that Madison had discussed 170 years before.

The 1960s was a different time. Looking backwards, Jim described how he could not at the time have predicted the success of Rawls’ theories and the way in which America has embraced government planning and restrictions on personal liberty. That wasn’t the kind of government to which people would consent, Jim told us, and he championed the kind of restrictions on government, such as the Balanced Budget Amendment, that would keep it off our backs.

Jim was an old-school gentleman, with a courtly and formal style. He was the enemy of cant and a lover of truth, and is missed as the kindest of teachers by hundreds of former students. R.I.P.

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law.