Further Notes on James Buchanan
By David Henderson
In my haste last night to post on Jim Buchanan, I neglected to point out that a large percent of his work is on-line for free at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Economics and Liberty. Go here and scroll down alphabetically to Buchanan.
At breakfast this morning in D.C., I read the Washington Post, something I don’t do every day. There was a pretty good article by Matt Schudel on Buchanan. Here’s an excerpt from the piece that I found striking:
“His big contribution,” Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Wednesday, “is that he got our profession to think of government policymakers not as platonic philosophers but as interested parties in their own right who are furthering their own views, at least some extent.”
I think that’s a nice summary of one of Buchanan’s–and also Gordon Tullock’s–biggest contributions. I would also say, though, that we aren’t there yet. A majority of economists who think about policy–and a large percent of even libertarian and conservative ones–often write as if government policymakers are “platonic philosophers” who need only be persuaded about what’s good for the people.
There is one statement in the piece, though, that I take issue with:
Even Dr. Buchanan’s staunchest admirers admitted that he was forbidding and hardly had a warm personality.
“Forbidding” in the sense of not suffering fools gladly? Probably yes. But not having a warm personality? That was not my experience over many years of occasional interactions. My first experience was when I wrote him, in 1971, a fan letter about his book, Public Principles of Public Debt, and he wrote back, within a week, addressing a question I had asked and even telling me that if I updated the data in the Appendix, I might get an article out of in the National Tax Journal. That strikes me as warm. Moreover, I never think of Jim, and probably never will, without thinking of that twinkle in his eye that suggested that just beneath the surface was someone who really enjoyed a good laugh. And I often saw him laugh–and not at people but at the circumstances, the humorous insight, etc. Jim didn’t have any children. To a large extent, though, many of us 20 to 60 years younger, were his children. And, although he never, as far as I know, told any of us that he loved us–that was not what people in his generation did–I felt that love.