James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize winning economist and my former professor, has died at 93. There is much that one can say about him, not the least of which is that he was still intellectually sharp and active into his 90s. In short: he changed the face of economics and politics and advanced the cause of liberty as much as anyone in the second half of the 20th century.
Buchanan’s work changed political economy in fundamental ways. Thanks to him and his colleagues, three things are true: No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of his contributions to constitutional political economy.
For readers of BHL, Buchanan, like Hayek, saw much of value in Rawls. Buchanan too had the veil of ignorance/uncertainty concept and saw Rawls as having made an important contribution to liberal theory. Buchanan’s classical liberalism was without question one where the concerns of the least well off among us played a prominent role. Understanding public choice theory is indispensable for understanding why good intentions are not enough to make the case for government intervention. If we want to understand why decades of government solutions have not been very successful at improving the condition of the least well off, public choice theory and Buchanan’s work is the place to start.
Beyond all of that, he was a role model of the old school scholar: widely read and properly skeptical of turning economics into an engineering discipline. He was, at bottom, a humanist and a liberal in the oldest and best senses of the terms. And best of all: he was utterly unimpressed by degrees from fancy schools. As he put it, he was one of “the great unwashed” and he instilled that spirit of refusing to kow-tow to his supposedly more credentialed superiors into the whole George Mason program.
I am very grateful for his work and his teaching and his modeling what a long and successful career and life looks like.
Rest in peace Professor Buchanan. The world is a better place for your work.