Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Happy Birthday James Buchanan

Don Boudreaux at Marginal Revolution reminded me that today is James Buchanan's birthday, his 87th. Buchanan was the 1986 winner of the Nobel in economics for his contribution to the development of the field of public choice economics.

When I was finishing my doctoral studies at USC in the early 1980s I had a theory professor who argued that it was a professional responsibility to send a copy of a paper you wrote about a living scholar to that scholar. I remember thinking a lot about that suggestion - but I followed it. I wrote a paper in that course about public choice theory and dutifully sent it off to Buchanan and his colleague Gordon Tullock, who were then at Virginia Polytechnic University. I was surprised a few weeks later when both professors wrote back to me with comments and suggestions about my work. They were under no obligation to me, except that I was then a developing scholar. I always appreciated their response. For a period of a bit more than a year, we carried on a correspondence about the field of public choice.

Buchanan also tells the story of his post doctoral work at the University of Chicago. He was doing a postdoctoral fellowship where he was given free run at the library of economics and seemingly by chance discovered a work by Knut Wicksell (whose picture Buchanan is holding, above). In 1987 Buchanan gave a speech at the University of San Diego where he talked about his rediscovery of Wicksell's work. The excitement which Professor Buchanan still had some thirty years later for that event was contagious.

Buchanan has written extensively on a branch of economics that has redefined how we think about the world, especially how we think about decisions made in the public sector. When he started his work, there was a naive belief that decisions in the public sector somehow did not exhibit the same self interested characteristics as those taken in the private sector. Through several decades of careful scholarship, he and a growing list of colleagues, built a literature which helped to redefine both the normative and positivist (value laden and empirical) bounds of thinking about how decisions are made in the public sector.

His contribution to the field of economics was recognized in his Nobel in 1986. His contribution to the development of scholars in a number of ways can be seen in his willingness almost 25 years ago to respond to someone still working on his degree.

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