Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan (1919-2013)

Published January 21, 2013

James McGill Buchanan Jr. died Wednesday, January 9, 2013 in Blacksburg, Virginia. In 1986 he won the Nobel Prize in economics mainly for establishing the public choice school of economics.

I was a student at his graduate seminar in public choice at University of California-Los Angeles when he was visiting professor in the winter of 1972. That gave me the opportunity to witness the hard-working and creative economic genius of our time.

Buchanan was born on October 3, 1919 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to farmer John Buchanan and schoolteacher Lila (Scott) Buchanan. He was raised working hard on the farm. Indeed, he told about paying for college by milking cows. In his autobiography, Better Than Plowing (2007), he compared working on economic problems with farming and concluded economics was better. In a touch of irony, his last years were spent on a farm he owned near Blacksburg, Virginia.

This dedication to hard work was misunderstood by many. For example, in the New York Times obituary, he is described as “forbidding and hardly had a warm personality.”

How wrong that description is. This was evident in the organization of the public choice seminar in which I was enrolled. In the second meeting of each week, Buchanan would lay out part of a theory he was working on. He would summarize the literature, if there was any. Then he would assign the completion of the theory to us students. He wanted no literature search or algebra. Diagrams, however, were permitted and encouraged. There was intense competition among the students. The reason had to do with his habit of collaborating with others, including his students.

A young economist could not imagine a better boost to a career than being a coauthor with a superstar like Buchanan. An important qualification for a coauthor was the sharing of Buchanan’s work ethic. His generosity was in contrast to the common behavior of other academics. Too often in those days, senior faculty would take the work of students and publish articles without the student being named as author or coauthor.

Another misconception about Jim Buchanan is that his contributions are policy suggestions rather than explanations about economic phenomena. Missed is his contribution on the theory of clubs. He observed in 1965 that clubs are private provision of some public goods where there are large spillover effects and a possible free-rider problem. An example is a private golf course that would be beyond the capacity for one person to own and where careless use is penalized by a devaluation of the course and a wealth loss to the member-owners. Other examples include homeowners associations, law firms, the Republican Party, and religious organizations. The last example is very interesting because it explains one of the world’s oldest institutions.

I was privileged to witness up-close one of the economics profession’s greatest contributors.

James L. Johnston ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for energy and regulatory policy and a member of its Board of Directors.