James M. Buchanan

American economist, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics (1919–2013)

James McGill Buchanan, Jr. (3 October 19199 January 2013) was an American economist known for his work on public choice theory, who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics.

James Buchanan, 2010.
See Also
The Calculus of Consent
Democracy in Deficit


  • Individuals do not act so as to maximize utilities described in independently-existing functions. They confront genuine choices, and the sequence of decisions taken may be conceptualized, ex post (after the choices), in terms of “as if” functions that are maximized. But these “as if” functions are, themselves, generated in the choosing process, not separately from such process. If viewed in this perspective, there is no means by which even the most idealized omniscient designer could duplicate the results of voluntary interchange. The potential participants do not know until they enter the process what their own choices will be. From this it follows that it is logically impossible for an omniscient designer to know, unless, of course, we are to preclude individual freedom of will.
  • I did not call him "Fritz." To me he remained always "Professor Hayek," despite his own graciousness in treating me as a peer. I shall not attempt to evaluate Professor Hayek's monumental contribution to our understanding of the events of this turbulent century, to the influence of his ideas on these events themselves or even to the development of economic theory in a strictly scientific sense.
    • "I did not call him “Fritz”: Personal recollections of Professor F. A. v. Hayek." Constitutional Political Economy 3.2 (1992): 129-135.
  • Well, we haven’t learnt yet to live together peacefully... But I don’t know what progress really means. Anyway, I think we need to have faith in the fact that there is more out there to be explained. Even the paradigms that we now have, including subjective value theory, for example, are only provisional. Some physicist might believe that ultimately, we will be able to explain everything. To me, that is utterly stupid, just like saying that an atheist is equally dogmatic as a Texas Baptist. It seems to me that, if you accept evolution, you can still not expect your dog to get up and start talking German. And that’s because your dog is not genetically programmed to do that. We are human animals, and we are equally bound. There are whole realms of discourse out there that we cannot reach, by definition. There are always going to be limits beyond which we cannot go. Knowing that they are there, you can always hope to move a little closer – but that’s all.
    • In: Karen Ilse Horn (ed.) Roads to Wisdom, Conversations With Ten Nobel Laureates in Economics (2009)
  • A version of the old fable about the king's nakedness may be helpful here. Public choice is like the small boy who said that the king really has no clothes. Once he said this, everyone recognized that the king's nakedness had been recognized, but that no-one had really called attention to this fact.

Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes (1977)

Main article: Democracy in Deficit

In What Should Economists Do? (1979)

  • Economics is the study of the whole system of exchange relationships. Politics is the study of the whole system of coercive or potentially coercive relationships.
    • p. 34

Quotes about Buchanan

  • In short, if Buchanan's argument was that liberal demands for an ever expanding welfare state would lead to chronic deficits, history has shown him to be wrong. If the argument is that the desire for tax cuts and increased military spending, coupled with macroeconomic mismanagement, could lead to large deficits, there is a strong case.
  • 1. He developed the “theory of clubs,” which sets out the conditions under which private associations supply excludable public goods at optimum levels.
    2. For his time he had the best and most rigorous analysis of the incidence of public debt.
    3. With Gordon Tullock he pioneered the economic analysis of voting rules in terms of transactions costs and external costs imposed on others. Any current blogosphere discussion of say the filibuster will rely on this approach, though we now take it so for granted we don’t realize how impressive it was at the time.
    4. He had pioneering economic analyses of bicameralism, logrolling, and other aspects of legislatures, again with Tullock.
    5. Along with Harsanyi, he formulated aspects of the “original position” before Rawls did and he was a major influence on Rawls. By the way, I have seen Buchanan numerous times with top professional philosophers, and he has no problem holding his own or better.
    6. He helped pin down, including on the technical side, the economic concept of externality.
    7. He provided the most important revision to optimal tax theory since Ramsey, namely the point that supposedly efficient methods of taxation can be too easy to use. That was in The Power to Tax, with Brennan. His piece on static vs. dynamic versions of the Laffer curve, with Dwight Lee, is also significant.
    8. He provided a public choice analysis of why Keynesian economics would not lead to the appropriate budget surpluses during good times and thus would contain dangerous ratchet effects toward excess deficits.
    9. He thought through the conflict between subjective and objective notions of value in economics, and the importance of methodologically individualist postulates, more deeply than perhaps any other economist. Most economists hate this work, or refuse to understand it, either because it lowers their status or because it is genuinely difficult to follow or because it requires philosophy. Yet it stands among Buchanan’s greatest contributions even if a) I do not myself agree with his approach, and b) I do not think it is easily summarized or even well-explained. Buchanan took Knight and Shackle very seriously and he understood that the typical pragmatic dismissal of their caveats was not in fact well-founded.
    10. His Hayekian work on “order defined only through the process of emergence” and “economics as a science of exchange and catallactics” is a very important take-down of the scientific pretensions of much of economics. It doubted whether the notion of efficiency could be independently conceptualized at all. Again, this work is disliked or ignored. Buchanan may be going too far, but it is a very important and neglected perspective.
    11. He thought more consistently in terms of “rules of the games” than perhaps any other economist. This point remains underappreciated and underapplied. It makes technocracy out to be a fundamentally different endeavor.
    12. He did important work in the history of economic thought, reviving interest in the Italian school of public finance and public choice.
    13. His late papers with Yoon on the work ethic, increasing returns, and economic growth remain underappreciated. I also admire his work with Yoon on the anti-commons.
  • I see at least six James Buchanans: 1. The brilliant academic thinker behind the genius insights of Calculus of Consent. […]
    2. The academic operator seeking to get money from ex-Governor and U.Va. President Darden for the great public choice research project by overpromising how useful his Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy would be in providing intellectual weapons to strengthen the political causes of Darden and his friends.
    3. The academic operator going beyond what I, at least, regard as the permissible academic pale by imposing a political-ideological litmus test on who he invited into the public choice circle—i.e., not Mancur Olson, or any Olson students or potential Olson students (like me, in my younger days). […]
    4. The grandson of Kentucky Governor John Buchanan, offended that Yankees would dare tell southern gentlemen how to deal with their "peculiar institutions". (And just what are these "Western traditions"? And how near to the core of these "Western traditions" is white supremacy anyway? That the language here is Aesopian is not to Buchanan's credit.)
    5. The friend of plutocrats or would-be plutocrats buying into the Hayekian idea that political democracy was, fundamentally, a mistake because the plebes would vote themselves bread-and-circuses and so ultimately destroy civilization.
    6. The right-wing activist seeking, in a von Misian or Rothbardian way, to harness and in fact mobilize racial evil to the service of what he regarded as the good of stomping the New Deal and Keynesian economics into oblivion.
  • Unlike Kenneth J. Arrow or Robert M. Solow, Buchanan is not a puzzle solver, but rather a system builder, someone who has come up with a whole new paradigm, an innovative way of looking at the world in general and at politics or collective choice in particular (see Horn, 2009, pp. 85–90.) As mentioned, the roots of this are to be found largely in his personal background and his experience and cultural inheritance as a Southerner. From the outset, what interested him more than anything else was how it is possible for people to live in society without infringing on each other’s rights.
    • Karen Horn, "James M. Buchanan – Doing away with discrimination and domination", Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 80 (2011)
  • 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.
  • The basic idea of Buchanan's constitutional economics was that public decision really comes in two stages, not one: the constitutional stage, and the political stage. People generate constitutions that create an institutional environment constrained in ways that they perceive to be beneficial. This has implications for how we think about the subsequent political stage. It rejects that Lysander Spooner take on things that says that unanimous consent is required for just policy decisions, because people will consent to a constitutional arrangement where legislation passes with less than unanimous consent because they think that the whole package of policy that such an institutional environment produces is preferable to policy produced in a unanimous consent environment. You can think about it as a sort of nested optimization.
  • The basic concern of Buchanan (e.g. Buchanan, 1975) is to deny that a libertarian position requires the making of ethical judgments of the kind made by social philosophers who 'play God'. ... It follows that liberalism is about determination of the 'correct' contractual procedures which will allow individuals to consent to intervention by government. That procedure, if it is to be compatible with an individualist position, requires, so far as is practically possible, unanimous consent. Therefore, the common procedure used by economists to identify a social welfare function which is then to be 'maximized' implicitly rejects the individualistic decision-making process, which is the only mechanism through which individuals both express preferences and have them acted upon. To claim that preferences can be revealed and acted upon by governments, unencumbered by individuals' consent, is to presuppose that they and their officials will always act in an enlightened and wholly disinterested way. It is a curious paradox that, in the light of Buchanan's distaste for Keynesian elitism (see Buchanan, 1991), there are elements in Keynes's rather fragmentary thinking on political matters which express a sympathy with an individualistic stance.
    • Alan T. Peacock, "Keynes and the role of the State", IV. Keynes As an End State Liberal
  • His great mind is now still, but he lives on in the ideas he passed on to his students, colleagues, and friends. It has been said that only poets and songwriters are immortal, but as an economist, Jim’s work surely approaches immortality because it will continue to be read and discussed throughout time to come. We still read Adam Smith (at least some of us), and it is a good bet that over 200 years from now, young scholars will pore over Jim’s articles and books in search of ideas, insights, and inspiration. This may not be an eternity, but it is a very long half-life. Better yet, maybe some future political generation will see fit to put our fiscal house in order and in so doing pay homage to our memory of Jim Buchanan. Rest in peace.
    • Robert D. Tollison, "James M. Buchanan: In Memoriam", Southern Economic Journal, 2013, 80(1), 1–4

See also

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