Thursday, January 10, 2013

James Buchanan

When I was doing my doctoral work, I had a professor who made the outrageous suggestion that when I wrote a paper that discussed the work of a living scholar that I send the person a copy of my paper.   Utterly absurd, I thought.   But when I wrote a first paper on public choice economics, I sent the paper to James Buchanan, who with his colleague Gordon Tullock, developed the field.  Professor Buchanan died on the 9th.  after a long and distinguished career that assiduously avoided direct involvement in politics.

Professor Buchanan was kind enough to respond with some comments and suggestions and we began some dialogue via snail mail for most of the rest of my program.   A few years after those exchanges, Buchanan won the Nobel in Economics for the body of his work.

Much of Professor Buchanan's work is not easily accessible.   His basic premise is that politicians do not check their self interest at the door when they enter public service.  Common knowledge now but not when he began to write.   If you are interested in getting a flavor of the field try The Calculus of Consent.  His work in a number of fields (including public finance, taxation, debt, logrolling in public decisions and constitutional theory) helped to open new dialogues.

I had friends who worked directly with Buchanan and said he was a terror.  But he is also a key figure in the development of the fine economics department at George Mason University.   I was enormously appreciative of his willingness to offer ideas to a doctoral student.   It is a good mark of a true professional.

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