Remembering James Buchanan (1919-2013)
I heard the sad news, that my teacher and academic role model, James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) passed away at the age of 93. Just this past August, I witnessed Professor Buchanan give a lucid lecture on the fiscal crisis facing the US as a consequence of policy changes that resulted in the separation of spending decisions from tax decisions. To illustrate his point, Buchanan asked his audience to consider the incentives one faces when ordering food when part of a dinner club. The dinner club rule is that the bill will be split equally among all attendees, but when making their food selections each attendee knows that their marginal cost for each extra drink or desert is lower than the menu price for the items. As a result of the rules of the game that separate the spending from payment, we end up with a much bigger bill than we otherwise would have ended up with for the dinner as a whole. And, due to a similar set of rules in our public economy, government spending in the US is far greater than what otherwise would have been the case if the tax decision was closer to the spending decision.
Watching him speak this past August, I was struck by two things simultaneously. First, how active his mind was and how strong his voice was on such an important policy issue. We can all only hope that into our ninth decade we continue to fight for economic common sense on pressing matters of public policy with such a strong and clear voice. Second, I was reminded of my own experience as Buchanan’s student in the earlier 1980s. Buchanan’s classes were the first classes I ever took that I sat in the front row. I understood before he won the Nobel that I had the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest economists in the world. And Buchanan didn’t disappoint. One of the most striking aspects of Buchanan’s approach to teaching was his engagement with students. Buchanan never treated a question from a student with anything but the utmost of respect, and always saw a potential insight from a question whether anyone else could see it or not. I have a fortune cookie saying hanging from my office door at Mason that says: “A wise man learns more from a fool than a fool will ever learn from a wise man.” I think this sums up Professor Buchanan – a very wise man indeed.
Intellectually, Buchanan revolutionized economics and political economy in the second half of the 20th century. His contributions in public finance, public choice and constitutional economics changed the way that it is taught and practiced. But besides his methodological and analytical contributions, which will be justly celebrated in various retrospectives on Buchanan and public choice, it is important to stress that Buchanan also made fundamental contributions to social and political philosophy. As Buchanan put it in a document discussing the founding of the Thomas Jefferson Center f