In Memoriam: James M. Buchanan (1919-2013)

James M. Buchanan (1919–2013)

It is almost two months since economist and Nobel Laureate James Buchanan passed away. There are really only two of Buchanan’s many works that ever made an impression on me: his Cost and Choice, and his and Gordon Tullock’s Calculus of Consent.

The former made an impression because it is very good (in my view Buchanan’s best work), clearly written, and takes a firm stand for economic (i.e., opportunity) cost as opposed to accounting cost. In this book, Buchanan comes across as being quitean Austrian. Or, perhaps, as standing firmly in the LSE tradition. To me, Buchanan on cost is as good as Kirzner on capital. Unfortunately, most of Buchanan’s other works mean as little to me as Kirzner’s. And that’s not much.

The Calculus of Consent was difficult to read while fairly assessing it. Don’t get me wrong – it is absolutely not hard to read. On the contrary! But this is a true classic, a cornerstone of public choice theory, and as such much of its great contributions have been iterated a billion times over in later works (often by less known but more modern scholars). So when I finally got to reading it (in 2008?), it was old news – I already knew pretty much all of it. It was a nice read, no doubt, and it made one heck of a difference when it was first published. But as so many classics, whether fiction or scholarly, you already know most of what’s between the covers before you actually pick it up and read it. (A bibliophile like me still thinks it is a thrill to read a classic just because it is a classic, and seeing how the ideas and/or plot originally unfolded – but it is hard to get excited about ideas that one already knows.)

The rest of Buchanan’s work? Never made much of an impression. I have read excerpts, individual chapters, essays, and several summaries of his works and legacy, yet – though his influence was undoubtedly great – I find it difficult to get excited by his work. I have a bunch of his books in my book case, but most of this collection remains unread. Perhaps one reason is that his thinking doesn’t appear to be radically different from many others’. His economics was not all that different from mainstreamers’ economics, but he made “radically” new applications of this theory.

This being said, it would be an unforgivable mistake to simply dismiss the Buchanan legacy.

Perhaps one thing that I always found a bit troubling with Buchanan, but that I was never able to pinpoint and therefore it remained hidden and implicit until very recently, is what David Levy and Sandra Peart summarize as Buchanan’s “ability to rethink a question from the foundations unencumbered by what he had written on the topic.” I realize this can (and perhaps was meant to) be interpreted as something positive in the sense of being willing to change one’s mind, reassess one’s findings, a sense of open-mindedness. But it can also be quite the opposite.

This “ability” of disregarding what one already knows is something that has always bothered me quite a bit with great scholars and thinkers such as F. A. Hayek and Ronald H. Coase. The former called himself a “puzzler” or “muddler” rather than a “master of his subject,” and the latter claimed his thinking was freer and better by not being constrained by [economic] education. One of course has to be able to reassess one’s conclusions when exposed to new data or better explanations. But this is hardly the same thing as (constantly?) rethinking one’s work and “reinventing the wheel.”

In fact, I would be inclined to think scholars occupied doing the latter have failed in their undertaking. Rethinking should often turn out to be a result of poor original thinking, subpar theorizing, and flawed logic, rather than honest open-mindedness and curiosity. This is not to say stubbornness is an important and unfailing quality; but being stubborn when one is right is not a vice, it is a virtue.

Nevertheless, James Buchanan is one of the great economists and scholars of the 20th century. He should be remembered as such.

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