Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) was recorded in 2001 in an extended video now available to the public. Universally respected as one of the founders of the economics of public choice, he is the author of numerous books and hundreds of articles in the areas of public finance, public choice, constitutional economics, and economic philosophy. Buchanan devoted himself to the study of the contractual and constitutional basis for the theory of economic and political decision-making.

In Part I of the interview, Buchanan discusses the theory of public choice, the exchange theory of economics, and constitutional thought.

In Part II, the conversation turns to topics such as the work ethic, the logic of free markets, subjectivism, anarchy, federalism, the Nobel prize, and Buchanan’s personal experiences and philosophy.

Below are some prompts for further conversation:


5:15 The Origins of Public Choice

1- Buchanan speaks of the “homely but important truth” that politicians are just like the rest of us. He notes this as a central part, but still only a part, of public choice theory. What’s missing in describing public choice as embodying just this principle, also known as “politics without romance?”

2- When Buchanan arrived at the University of Chicago, he described himself as a “libertarian socialist.” What did he mean by that, and how did his worldview change while he was there?

3- Brennan points to a common critique of public choice which suggests that if accepted, the theory would dangerously erode social trust. What is Buchanan’s response to this critique? To what extent does he satisfactorily rebut it?


13:20 On Exchange

4- Buchanan claims that economics has gone down the wrong path in emphasizing maximization. Instead, he’d like to see the emphasis on exchange. How does exchange differ from maximization, according to Buchanan? Is this a more appropriate focus? Why?

5- Why does Buchanan regard game theory as the most important contribution of the last century? To what extent do you agree?


19:15 Politics as Exchange

6- What is the “aggregation fallacy” which Buchanan argues economics slipped into in the mid-twentieth century? Has it yet recovered?

7- While Buchanan stresses thinking about politics as exchange, he also notes that is not all exchange? What other explanations of politics does he think can be useful, and why are competing models in general helpful to the study of politics?

8- On what grounds does Buchanan criticize the “empirical nonsense” in vogue in economics today? To what extent does he fairly characterize today’s empirical research methods?


27:35 Meeting Wicksell

9- Buchanan describes his delight in finding Wicksell’s early work in public finance. What innovations does Buchanan ascribe to Wicksell, and how did they influence Buchanan’s own research program?

10- Buchanan describes how Wicksell’s unanimity rule influenced The Calculus of Consent. How did Buchanan and Tullock revise Wicksell’s concept in Calculus?

11- What does Buchanan regard as the primary contribution of The Calculus of Consent?

12- What does Buchanan mean when he says that one cannot appreciate the ideological ferment of the 1950s and 1960s today? Is he right?


39:42 Constitutions versus constitutions

13- What is the difference between Constitutions and constitutions, according to Buchanan, and why is this distinction so important?

14- Why does Buchanan believe that Hayek was mistaken in placing so much emphasis on the evolutionary nature of rules? Do you agree?

15- Brennan asks Buchanan which sorts of reforms he would advocate. What does he suggest, and how plausible do you find each?

16- Brennan suggests a tension exists between agreement at the constitutional level and existing institutional arrangements. What example does he point to, and how does Buchanan respond? Do you think this is a tension which can be mitigated or resolved?

17- When does Buchanan’s constitutionalism trump his libertarianism, and vice versa?

18- How does Buchanan characterize the difference between his position and that of John Rawls? With whom do you agree more?



Related References:

The Collected Works of James Buchanan at Econlib.

Buchanan and Tullock, The Calculus of Consent.

James Buchanan, “Order Defined in the Process of its Emergence,” in Readers’ Forum, Comments on ‘The Tradition of Spontaneous Order’ by Norman Barry:

James Buchanan, “The Constitution of Economic Policy,” Nobel lecture.

Liberty Matters, the Online Library of Liberty, James Buchanan: An Assessment.


Entries from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

EconTalk Podcasts:


EconLib articles: