James Buchanan: He "Uneducated" the Economists


The New York Times has a long and interesting obituary for Nobel-winning economist James M. Buchanan, whom Brian Doherty wrote about this morning.

Some snippets from the Times' send-off:

Over the years since Dr. Buchanan won the Nobel [in 1986], much of what he predicted has played out. Government is bigger than ever. Tax revenue has fallen far short of public programs' needs. Public and private borrowing has become a way of life. Politicians still act in their own interests while espousing the public good, and national deficits have soared into the trillions.

Dr. Buchanan partly blamed Keynesian economics for what he considered a decline in America's fiscal discipline. John Maynard Keynes argued that budget deficits were not only unavoidable but in fiscal emergencies were even desirable as a means to increase spending, create jobs and cut unemployment. But that reasoning allowed politicians to rationalize deficits under many circumstances and over long periods, Dr. Buchanan contended.

Boy, did he ever call that one. In explaining the essence of his life's work, Buchanan had this to say:

Dr. Buchanan said the prize highlighted his long struggle for a concept. "I have faced a sometimes lonely and mostly losing battle of ideas for some 30 years now in efforts to bring academic economists' opinions into line with those of the man on the street," he said. "My task has been to 'uneducate' the economists."

Whole thing here.

I especially recommend folks interested in this titan of modern politicial economy to read Deirdre McCloskey's wonderful review of Buchanan's own great memoir, Better Than Plowing. McCloskey praises Buchanan for quoting Nietzche and for being "educated" rather than "smart." By which she means that Buchanan engaged the world in very real and visceral ways; like very few of his peers or students, he read widely too, in all sorts of fields. He worked hard at figuring out the world's secrets and tried and tried again when stuff didn't come naturally to him. He was like the Batman of great economists—he wasn't born with superpowers, he acquired his insights through hard work and dogged determination.

Buchanan was also a classic insider-outsider: He hailed from Tennessee, far outside the part of the country where people were taken seriously during his youth (he was born in 1919). He describes movingly his anger at being taken for a yokel because of his origins, his generally unpolished academic pedigree (a B.A. from Middle Tennesse State Teachers College and an M.A. from University of Tennessee before ending up at Chicago), and his faculty affiliation with what passed for sketchy places back in the day (Univ. of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason).

In Better than Plowing, he memorably recalls how during World War II, the military brought in an actual Rockefeller heir to run his training platoon, on the assumption that non-Ivy Leaguers were too stupid for the job. "From that day forward," he wrote, "I have shared in the emotional damage imposed by discrimination, in any form, and 'fairness' assumed for me a central normative position decades before I came to discuss principles of justice professionally and philosophically."

Like many people born in his time and place, he remembered true scarcity and the toll it took on people barely eking out a living—and how power differentials ultimately corrupted a newly flush public sector that wasn't going to be held in check by the dog-eat-dog competition at work in the market economy. Companies, after all, could eventually be held in check by other companies, while government bureaucrats could swath themselves in fanciful rhetoric about the public interest and the common good. In his determination to cut through the bogus and self-serving language that attends to so many attempts to arrogate power to the state, Buchanan has always reminded me of another great, old, and recently departed libertarian giant, Thomas Szasz.

Our heroes have to die sometime, I suppose, and lord knows folks such as Buchanan contributed far more to the world than they ever took out, but it's always a dark day when they breathe their last.