James M. Buchanan’s Enduring Legacy for Limited Government and Individual Liberty

James M. Buchanan (1919-2013), whose keen intellect helped launch the field of public choice and earned him a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986, would have turned 100 years old today.

The Independent Institute has published so many articles, book reviews, and blogs about Buchanan’s ideas over the years—including a scholarly article and related op-ed written by the master himself—that diving into the waters blindly runs the risk of one’s becoming overcome by swift currents. (Fortunately, those currents carry the novice safely to still waters.)

Here I highlight a few pieces accessible to lay readers yet also helpful to those well versed in Buchanan and public choice.

A great place to start is the touching personal remembrance, written on the day of Buchanan’s passing, by Independent Institute Senior Fellow Randall G. Holcombe, author of the new book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History, which looks at long-term changes in the U.S. political landscape through the lens of public choice theory. Here’s an excerpt from Holcombe’s tribute:

Buchanan was a great teacher and a wonderful mentor. He was not a dynamic speaker in the classroom, but was meticulously organized and put together logical lectures so that by the end of the lecture, you had to be convinced of the ideas he was passing along. He was always a bit of a maverick in the economics profession, but he never presented his ideas that way, in lectures or in his many published works. This was the case to the extent that as a Buchanan student, it took me a few years to recognize how revolutionary his ideas and methods of economic analysis were. I learned a lot in the classroom from him, and have continued to learn from his written work.

Also very worth reading is the memorial piece by our retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy and former editor of The Independent Review, Robert Higgs. Excerpt:

After Buchanan received the Nobel prize in 1986, I invited him to come to Lafayette College, where I was then a professor, to give some talks to students and faculty. He graciously came, which gave me my first opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time with him, getting to know him better and picking his brain. Later, over the years, I spent much time with him at Liberty Fund colloquiums, conferences, and other professional gatherings, each time gaining a new glimpse into his mind, outlook, and attitudes.

In addition, see the nice remembrance by Independent Institute Senior Vice President Mary L. G. Theroux. Excerpt:

[Buchanan’s] Southern graciousness shone through in his relations with the Independent Institute, agreeing to join our founding Board of Advisors in 1986—before he was awarded the Nobel Prize—and serving faithfully over the many years since. His increased eminence turned his head not a bit, and he very kindly consented to be the first recipient of the Independent Institute’s Alexis de Tocqueville Award at the first Gala dinner we held in 1987, The National Dinner to Honor James M. Buchanan.

For a highly accessible introduction to Buchanan’s work, see Independent Institute Research Fellow Robert L. Formaini’s short essay, “James M. Buchanan: The Creation of Public Choice Theory,” which first ran in Economic Insights (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas). The piece includes a few autobiographical comments from Buchanan, excerpted from a 1992 book, including this gem:

I resist, and resist strongly, any and all efforts to pull me toward positions of advising on this or that policy or cause. I sign no petitions, join no political organizations, advise no party, serve no lobbying effort. Yet the public’s image of me, and especially as developed through the media after the Nobel Prize in 1986, is that of a rightwing libertarian zealot who is antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian, and antiscientific. I am, of course, none of these and am, indeed, the opposites. Properly understood, my position is both democratic and egalitarian, and I am as much a scientist as any of my peers in economics. But I am passionately individualistic, and my emphasis on individual liberty does set me apart from many of my academic colleagues whose mind-sets are mildly elitist and, hence, collectivist.

Buchanan’s remarks above set the stage for Independent Institute Senior Fellow Michael C. Munger’s brilliant review essay, “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice: Constitutional Conspiracy?” (The Independent Review, Winter 2017/18), wherein Munger critiques fellow Duke University professor Nancy MacLean’s news-making—and deeply flawed—tome, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Munger’s piece is more than a takedown of MacLean’s faux scholarly demonization of Buchanan and the public choice movement; it is a substantive discussion of public choice and Buchanan’s heroic role in its development.

Finally (we have to stop somewhere), I leave you with my piece “Debunking Democracy with James M. Buchanan” (The Beacon, 10/3/14), a write-up of the symposium on Buchanan’s works and legacy that appeared in Winter 2013/14 issue of The Independent Review.

Among the first questions young people ask upon their political awakening is one that should concern Americans of all ages: Why don’t democratic governments operate the way our civic classes taught us? Perhaps no one of his generation thought more deeply about this question than the economist James M. Buchanan (1919–2013). The late Nobel laureate would have turned 95 years old on October 3 [2014] and we’re happy to use the anniversary of his birth to publicize his legacy. Last winter, The Independent Review published a six-article symposium on Buchanan’s contributions to political economy and classical liberalism—all of which is now available for free on our website. Christopher J. Coyne, one of our journal’s three co-editors, kicks off the discussion with an introduction that traces Buchanan’s development of new tools to help us better understand how a democracy actually works, as distinct from how we wish it would work.

Buchanan called his approach “politics without romance,” yet he was fully invested in the romantic notion that intellectuals could and should inspire the public to imagine a better political community. Symposium contributors Geoffrey Brennan and Michael C. Munger (another co-editor of The Independent Review) make the case that both branches of Buchanan’s thought—his realism and his idealism—grew from the same root: his emphasis on constitutional rules of order and disdain for the rule of elites. Buchanan was also a moralist: He believed that one of the most appealing major features of a free society was its absence of dominion and discrimination in human relationships. Independent Institute Research Fellow Peter Boettke author of Living Economics, suggests that by stressing this benefit, freedom’s friends would help many people overcome their fear that life without Big Government would entail too many responsibilities for them to manage well.

As with many prolific writers, Buchanan wrote so much over the decades that claims of his consistency are open to debate. Independent Institute Research Fellow Randall G. Holcombe, for example, argues that aspects of Buchanan’s constitutional thought might be at odds with individual liberty—particularly Buchanan’s argument for coercing individuals to support collective actions that he believed were necessary to further their own goals. Also, like other prolific scholars, Buchanan left a huge body of work rich in insights that have yet to be fully mined. Niclas Berggren, for example, believes that Buchanan and Tullock’s seminal 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent, has untapped potential to inspire new thinking to advance the cause of liberty. Finally, Hartmut Kliemt concludes the symposium with a look at the logic of Buchanan’s classical liberalism. Buchanan came to his views, Kliemt explains, because he was a communitarian philosopher who discovered the unanimity rule.

(Readers hungry for more discussions of Buchanan’s thought can find several related pieces on The Beacon, archived here, as well as a review of volume 1 of Buchanan’s collected works. Also, see Buchanan’s insightful essay, “The Soul of Classical Liberalism,” and a response by Dwight R. Lee, in The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close.)

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow and former Executive Editor for Acquisitions and Content at the Independent Institute and former Assistant Editor of The Independent Review.
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