Choices, Public and Private


Better than Plowing and Other Personal Essays, by James M. Buchanan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 194 pages, $23.95

In 1971, as an undergraduate in economics, I wrote James Buchanan a fan letter after getting excited about his book Public Principles of Public Debt. Imagine my surprise when I got a reply the next week. Nor was it a perfunctory reply. In his letter, Buchanan suggested that I update some of the data in his book and submit the results as a paper to the National Tax Journal. (To my regret, I didn't.) Those of you who know academics will know just how rare it is for a senior, internationally known scholar to give this kind of nurturing to one of his or her own students, let alone to a 20-year-old stranger.

Buchanan is well-known for nurturing students, and the Nobel Prize in economics that he won in 1986 did not seem to change that side of him. He reveals more about his own character and personality, and gives punchy commentary on various other topics, in his book Better Than Plowing. The title, Buchanan explains, is a description of an academic career, taken from his mentor, Frank Knight. These essays about Buchanan's roots and his thoughts about his work are probably as close to an autobiography as he will ever write. Those who, like me, are fascinated by reading about people's intellectual odysseys will enjoy much of this book.

Buchanan, who grew up in relative poverty in Tennessee, received his undergraduate education at Middle Tennessee State Teachers College in Murfreesboro. Drafted into the U.S. Navy in August 1941, he spent World War II as a lieutenant at Pearl Harbor and on Guam. One incident in the Navy stands out, in his memory and in the book. The group of cadets with which he was training in 1941 was divided alphabetically. But because there were too few As and Bs with an Ivy League background but a surplus of Ivy Leaguers in the Rs and Ss, an R was imported to head Buchanan's platoon. His name: Bill Rockefeller.

Comments Buchanan: "This initial appointment of cadet officers 'radicalized' me to such an extent that emotional scars remain, even a half century later." (To this day, Buchanan favors confiscatory inheritance taxes, a view that he admits was conditioned by that experience.)

So, writes Buchanan, when he decided after the war to do graduate work in economics, he wanted no part of "eastern establishment" elitism. He decided to attend the University of Chicago.

The decision, he recognizes, was fateful. For it was there that Buchanan met and studied under economist Frank Knight. When Buchanan arrived at Chicago, he was a self-described "libertarian socialist." He had been antigovernment but also, after having read his grandfather's populist tracts on big business, had distrusted the establishment that he thought ran the U.S. economy. But within six weeks of enrolling in Knight's price theory class, Buchanan had become a zealous advocate of free markets.

Buchanan's main contribution to economics is his work on public choice. Public choice, in a nutshell, is based on the idea that just as consumers and producers in the private marketplace act on the basis of their self-interest, so do voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. Buchanan saw the idea of looking at the political system in this way as the obvious next step.

"Once we acknowledge that governmental or political outcomes are, themselves, produced by an interaction of persons, acting in varying political roles," he writes, "the political economist necessarily must extend analysis to the process of interaction and to the relation between process and patterns of results." With this starting point, Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and others developed the idea that governments, no less than markets, fail in characteristic ways.

When Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to public choice, some journalists and economists complained that his thoughts about political behavior were obvious. Interestingly, Buchanan agrees. He says that at no point in writing his first book on public choice, The Calculus of Consent, co-authored with Tullock, was there a sense of "discovery." Rather, the exercise was "writing out the obvious." Yet when their book was published in 1962, it created a lot of excitement and led to much further analysis of political behavior.

Although Buchanan believed while working on The Calculus of Consent that government failed in certain ways, he still thought that it basically responded to the preferences of individual citizens. But as he observed the explosion of government spending to benefit special interests in the late 1960s, his fundamental optimism disappeared. Buchanan came to see the U.S. government as Leviathan. In his 1980 book, The Power to Tax, co-authored with Geoffrey Brennan, Buchanan, in his words, "explores the implications of the hypothesis that government maximizes revenues from any taxing authority" it has.

This view of the state is behind Buchanan's unwillingness to advise governments. He writes: "I have remained unable…to participate putatively in proffering advice to a presumed benevolently despotic government."

One of the book's chapters is devoted entirely to Buchanan's favorite quotes from others. Of these, the three I like most are: "You and I may both believe in planning, but my plan may be to kill you" (economist David McCord Wright). "To talk of states as if they were persons, endowed with the spiritual impulses and aspirations of human beings, and therefore morally accountable, is a piece of pure abstraction for which not even Hegel can be held responsible. It is a habit of modern journalism, catering to that mixture of vulgar passion and dominant materialism which renders unto Caesar the things that are God's because Caesar can be bribed" (W. A. Orton). "You have to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man would be such a fool" (George Orwell).

Writing autobiographies is a new art form for economists. The only other one I know of by a recent American economist is George Stigler's Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist. I actually enjoyed Stigler's more because he managed to give an exciting story about his intellectual discoveries. But Stigler did not let the reader in on his own thinking about matters other than economics or on his feelings. Buchanan tried something more difficult. He wrote about his reasons for taking various actions, and he is just introspective enough to make me want more. He even writes, "I have never experienced psychological hangups," although he wisely hedges by immediately saying, "at least at any level of rational recognition." We all have hangups, and surely his about wealthy people counts. Still, Buchanan took a risk by exposing his personal side. For that he deserves credit.

Contributing Editor David R. Henderson is an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and editor of The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics (forthcoming in 1993).