Jim Buchanan has passed away. Here is Don Boudreaux’s short appreciation.
James M. Buchanan, who died Wednesday at age 93, was one of history’s greatest economists. Though he won the Nobel Prize in 1986, Jim at heart was always a farm boy from Tennessee—an old-fashioned, hardworking American who disdained unearned privileges as well as deeply distrusting the promises of politicians and the passions of collectives.
The theme of his life’s work is best summarized in the title of his 1997 article “Politics Without Romance.” With longtime colleague Gordon Tullock, Jim launched a research program—public-choice economics—that challenged the widespread notion that politicians in democratic societies are more nobly motivated and trustworthy than are business people and other private-sector actors. In a wide river of books and papers, Jim warned against the foolishness of romanticizing government.
Jim regarded his work as simply extending and applying the insights of America’s founding generation, especially those of James Madison. Unlike too many pundits and professors over the past century—but like America’s founders—Jim understood that politicians’ lovely proclamations of their desires to improve society too often camouflage unlovely venal motives that prompt politicians to disregard the general welfare in order to transfer wealth and privilege to powerful interest groups.
Auto-company bailouts, Solyndra subsidies, farm programs, tariffs—the real and ugly reasons for these and many other government activities become clear after absorbing Jim Buchanan’s lessons.
His deep skepticism of government, combined with his expert understanding of free markets, led Jim to describe himself as a “classical liberal.” But it wasn’t always so. Like many of his generation, the young Jim Buchanan was a socialist. His socialism was cured, though, by his studies in economics at the University of Chicago. While there, Jim polished his keen instincts for detecting nonsense.
Jim’s nonsense-detection instincts are on full display in his 1958 book “Public Principles of Public Debt.” By the 1950s most economists were trumpeting the Keynesian myth that government debt is no burden on future taxpayers as long as it is held internally—that is, as long as “we owe it to ourselves.”
Wrong, said Jim. It is unfortunate that he is no longer here to speak out against the again-rampant Keynesians who advocate massive deficit financing. Misled by their own unjustified lumping together of taxpayers and domestic bondholders, Keynesians mistakenly conclude that government is exempt from the reality that counsels households and firms to follow prudent rules of finance. This Keynesian error is one that Jim never tired of challenging.
Not that Jim held much hope that his speaking out against unwise government policy would do much good. He sought to prevent harmful policies by tying politicians’ hands rather than by pleading with politicians to be more public-spirited. And to tie politicians’ hands Jim championed constitutional reform. He believed that only binding, enforceable constitutional rules can prevent Leviathan from eventually suffocating private markets and stamping out human freedom.
Ironically, the constitutional reform that Jim advocated practically requires the cooperation of the politicians whom he so distrusted. Yet it is a mark of greatness in Jim Buchanan that he held out hope, until his dying day, that clear-eyed scholarship would eventually persuade people of the dangers of unconstrained government and of the need to somehow rein it in