James M. Buchanan: A Preliminary Appreciation

by Mario Rizzo

The great economist James M. Buchanan died today at 93. I am still too stunned to write a proper appreciation of his tremendous contributions to economics and, indeed, to moral philosophy.

Buchanan won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1986. But even this does not capture his greatness. There have been many Nobel prizes in Economics since 1969, the year they were initiated. (In my view there have been too many.) Many of these prize winners will be long forgotten and even viewed with puzzlement by future generations, but this prize will stand out.

It is true that in recent years I have come across graduate students at “top tier” departments who barely know who Buchanan is – or even worse confuse him with President Buchanan. This is a consequence of their deficient education and narrowness of perspective.  

As an Austrian economist, I appreciate Buchanan for the enormous esteem in which he held F.A. Hayek and the Austrian tradition in general. As a college student, I recall the joy that I experienced when Buchanan’s Cost and Choice was first published in 1969.  It seemed to me that, at last, an economist of international fame was led to an appreciation of the subjectivist tradition, which had so long been derided by the mainstream profession.

Buchanan was, in many ways, our main link with Frank H. Knight, another of the most important and most self-reflective economists in the history of our discipline. Not only was Buchanan technically Knight’s student, he was – more than Milton Friedman and George Stigler – Knight’s intellectual heir. It is true that they did have important disagreements, but they each knew how question the sacred cows of economics. They were each more than just economists. They knew of the importance of philosophy in economics. They were not deluded by the pretentions of our mathematician-economists.

Most important of all, they were each self-critical. They could learn; they could go beyond what they had previously written.  They did not look down their noses at alternative approaches. Neither did they suffer fools gladly. They could, in their own way, be “arrogant.” But it was really both the intolerance of John Stuart Mill who said that the true liberal is intolerant of only intolerance itself, as well as their contempt for sloppy thinking.

Buchanan did not think that philosophy in economics was the refuge of the incompetent. He was interested in figuring out what we should be doing as economists and in understanding better, through the thicket of conceptual confusions, what economists were in fact doing.

Buchanan’s basic positive contributions in the area of public choice economics and constitutional political economy will be summarized and analyzed by others. They have indeed widened the scope of economics in ways that are really significant:  politics without romance, the importance of rules of the game, the ethical implications of public finance and so forth.

We shall not soon see his like again.

15 thoughts on “James M. Buchanan: A Preliminary Appreciation

  1. We have lost not only a great economist, but a great man.

    He was always unfailingly supportive of younger scholars. I can testify to that personally.

    I last saw Jim at a Liberty Fund seminar in Freiburg, Germany. He was frail physically, but his mind still sharp.


  2. Professor Rizzo,

    In your comment on Daniel Kuehn’s blog you mention that Buchanan significantly integrated insights from David Hume. So did Hayek. Was this coincidental, or was Buchanan influenced by Hayek in this regard?

  3. A great scholar and fountainhead of good economics has passed. Time has thinned the ranks of our heroes and JMB’s passing leaves a huge lacuna.

  4. “As an Austrian economist,…” – that means you don’t believe in Aggregate Demand?! I’m no economist, but parsing each and every supply and demand curve in the economy as separate and unique is a bit too much like Scientology for my taste. Carry on.

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