Dick Wagner on Buchanan
By David Henderson
Shortly before the mid-September start of the semester, all students had to meet with Leland Yeager, then Director of Graduate Studies, to get their programs of study approved for the coming year. First-year students who came directly from their bachelor’s programs had a fixed program for the first year. This meant that for the fall semester, I would have taken history of thought with Coase, price theory with [Warren] Nutter, statistics with [Rutledge] Vining, and math econ with [James M.] Ferguson. In light of my undergraduate math background, however, Yeager said I could skip math econ and take something else. Instantly, I said I wanted to take Buchanan’s public finance class. Yeager said that wasn’t advised for students without previous graduate study. I said I wanted to do it anyway. Yeager wished me well.
This is one of the opening paragraphs of Richard E. Wagner, “James M. Buchanan and Me: Reminiscing About a 50-Year Association.” The article, especially the first half, is delightful.
As the period was ending, Buchanan assigned the first of the several essays for us to write that he would assign that semester. He started his explanation of the assignment by saying he had heard that “if a grasshopper or fly (I don’t recall which insect he referred to) were multiplied nine times in all dimensions, it wouldn’t be able to get off the ground and might even collapse under its own weight. There is a problem of dimensionality here. The size of government has similarly multiplied several times this century. There is a problem of fiscal dimension that is surely worth exploring. For your first assignment, write an essay on ‘the problem of fiscal dimension’.” Forgetting my embarrassment from earlier in the period, I raised my hand and asked: “Mr. Buchanan, could you give us some idea of what you are looking for in this essay?” Instantly, he shot back: “Mr. Wagner, if I knew what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be interested in hearing what you think.”
HT to Tyler Cowen.
UPDATE: I originally got the wrong Ferguson. I assumed Charles rather than James M. The latter was a colleague of mine at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s. I hadn’t known that he had been at U. Va. Don Boudreaux pointed this out and Dick Wagner confirmed it.