Thoughts on James Buchanan

As Catallaxy readers will be well aware by now, thanks to Rafe’s excellent post earlier today, one of the giants of classical liberalism in the twentieth century, James McGill Buchanan, has passed away at the age of 93, thus leaving behind an incomparable intellectual legacy.

There will be plenty of deeply penetrating intellectual obituaries of Buchanan written in the next week or so. What I propose to do here is honour the great man, in my own very small way, by providing some thoughts as to how Buchanan’s political economy has shaped my personal journey of intellectual discovery and understanding to where it is today.

Like far too many people gracing this good Earth, my adolescent years were pervaded by an uncritical acceptance of socialistic ideas. This tends to happen, upon reflection, when: (a) a young person’s direct exposure to the wondrous intricacies of decentralised economic coordination within markets is limited; (b) when government school teachers and textbooks sprout false claims about capitalist exploitation of workers, consumers and the environment; and (c) when one is reared within the family structure, in which resource allocation is (necessarily, I might add) determined by a ‘central authority’ (i.e. Dad).

The uncritical acceptance of socialism of my youth was powerfully shaken by the collapse of the Soviet empire, as images of collapsing barriers, the free movement of people to the West, regime change, and redrawing of political boundaries defied the conventional thinking that the Marxist?Leninist variant of socialism was organisationally rigorous and economically impervious to foundational change.

As much as I realised that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, unfolding before my eyes at the time, raised existential questions about the survivability of socialism as a feasible organisational principle for economies and societies, in my late teens I still lacked conceptual and analytical frameworks to comprehend why the downfall of communism was nothing more than an aberration to be ignored.

My undergraduate years of economics at the University of Queensland provided me with the frameworks, and indeed the answers, most assuredly putting the final nail in the coffin concerning my growing doubts about the socialism I uncritically previously believed in.

A first?year subject I took on what could be best described as an overview of the history of economic thought, taught by Alan Duhs, introduced me to Milton Friedman, who I read with instant relish. However it was a second?year subject on public finance, taught by the left?leaning Czech scholar Thomas Riha, that led me to the wonderful intellectual storehouse of ideas stockpiled by James Buchanan.

I was instructed by Riha to, first, read the iconic work in constitutional political economy, The Calculus of Consent (co?authored with Gordon Tullock) and, second, Buchanan’s famous 1949 article on ‘The Pure Theory of Government Finance.’

These two works alone revealed Buchanan’s great insight that one cannot properly conceptualise collective action, and the processes which underpin the design of fiscal and other public policies, without due consideration of the incentive structures and motives which undergird individual action within collective action processes.

Reading additional works by Buchanan and other public choice scholars showed me how self?interested behaviour pervading collective action processes can lead to the growth in the size and scope of the public sector, and the exhaustion of the fiscal commons in majoritarian democracies, all to the very great detriment of freedom. Just as Hayek and Mises correctly predicted the economic collapse of Marxism?Leninism, Buchanan predicted the economic collapse of big-government democratic politics gradually unfurling before us today.

Milton Friedman gave me a powerful intellectual nudge away from socialism, but it was James Buchanan’s work which effectively signed me up to classical liberalism for life (independent reading of the works of Hayek and Mises, and the journals and pamphlets provided by the IPA and CIS, also helped immeasurably).

So, it is without any shadow of a doubt that I say that Buchanan is one of my intellectual heroes, and that those of us who subscribe to the ideals of classical liberalism are bequeathed with the great responsibility to carry the torch of freedom that Buchanan carried with great ability during his long life.

RIP, Professor Buchanan.

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8 Responses to Thoughts on James Buchanan

  1. brc

    Alan Duhs also opened my eyes properly. I was never under the sway of socialism, but he helped me crystallize the mess of thoughts swirling in my head.

    Incidentally, an excellent essay on the ‘daddy model of wealth’ can be found here : Mind the gap

    Principally it deals with the incorrect model young people get by growing up in a regime where a central figures doles out the wealth, and changes in individual wealth arise from whining and begging rather than creating it yourself.

  2. Token

    A compelling story. I wish I had teachers of the stature you had when studying economics.

  3. Julie Novak

    Thanks Grigory.

    Hi Token – I think a person like Riha, who introduced me to public choice theory (and German ordo-liberalism, for that matter!), would be in fact a rare species of teacher these days. That is to say, somebody who is prepared to reveal all subtleties of argument and discourse, allowing the students themselves to decide on the veracity of claims made.

    I suspect nowadays you often get “push-teaching” of a necessarily limited view of the world, more often than not of the socialistic persuasion.

  4. brc

    I remembered a funny anecdote about econ with Alan Duhs – there was one woman in our class who liked like she was straight from central casting for a mid-level public service manager.

    When he spoke at length about the free market being the best allocator of resources, she protested loudly in the way one does when presented with information that conflicts with a worldview.

    He periodically returned throughout the semester to ask the same person questions, to see if they had started to grasp the concepts. This was usually met with bristling and refusal to accept that free markets weren’t perfect, but were far better than any other mechanism.

    By the end of the semester, she actually said this in class ‘I agree with you…..but only in here, not outside’.

    A stunning level of ability to simultaneously drop yet hold onto the promise of socialism.

  5. Jim Rose

    Buchanan had a remarkable ability at independent thinking and an ability to change his mind in important ways. He was a libertarian socialist until taking the first 6-weeks of frank knight’s course in price theory.

    He was a classical liberal who admired the Swedish welfare state because it was based on the principle of generality. Buchanan has said that all successful welfare states (such as Sweden) apply a generality norm in some form.

    under Buchanan’s generality norm, governments impose uniform regulation and use flat taxes on uniform tax bases to fund an equal-per-head demogrant to replace all existing government cash transfers and would be a very large government as a share of GDP. That did not bother him.


    Buchanan liked to quote his old teacher Frank Knight:

    I can’t figure out if people are bitching about the market because it works or because it doesn’t work.

    HT: thinkingonthemargin blog

  6. Jim Rose

    Buchanan also believed in a 100% death duty on estates over a modest threshold to equalise opportunities

  7. Pyrmonter

    There may be good bios to come, but this one, from the Torygraph, is terribly superficial. Almost as bad as the months long delay on Anna Schwartz.

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