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James M. Buchanan (1919-2013) in 2010. Photo by The Atlas Network. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

James M. Buchanan
Constitutional economics
Born October (1919-Template:MONTHNUMBER-03)3, 1919
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, U.S.A.
Died January 9, 2013(2013-Template:MONTHNUMBER-09) (aged 93)
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A.
Nationality American
Institution George Mason University
Virginia Tech
University of Virginia
Field Public choice
Alma mater University of Chicago
University of Tennessee
Middle Tennessee State University
Influences John Stuart Mill
Frank Knight
Knut Wicksell
Friedrich Hayek
Ludwig von Mises
Influenced Elinor Ostrom
Tyler Cowen
Contributions Public choice theory
Awards Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (1986)
Information at IDEAS/RePEc

James McGill Buchanan, Jr. (October 3, 1919 - January 9, 2013) was an American economist known for his work on public choice theory (included in his most famous work The Calculus of Consent), for which he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1986. Buchanan's work initiated research on how politicians' and bureaucrats' self-interest, utility maximization and other non-wealth maximizing considerations affect their decision making. He was a member of the Board of Advisors of The Independent Institute, a member (and for a time the President) of the Mont Pelerin Society,[1] a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute, and professor at George Mason University.


Buchanan was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the eldest child of James and Lila (Scott) Buchanan. He was a grandson of John P. Buchanan, a governor of Tennessee in the 1890's.[2] He graduated from Middle Tennessee State Teachers College, now known as Middle Tennessee State University, in 1940. Buchanan completed his M.S. from the University of Tennessee in 1941. He spent the war years on the staff of Admiral Nimitz in Honolulu, when he met Anne Bakke, whom he married on October 5, 1945. Anne, of Norwegian descent, was working as a nurse at the military base in Hawaii (she died in 2005).

Buchanan identified as a socialist in his youth, and was unaware of the University of Chicago's strong market-oriented approach to economics. His studies there, particularly under Frank H. Knight, converted him to "a zealous advocate of the market order".[3] Buchanan received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1948 for his thesis "Fiscal Equity in a Federal State," in which he was heavily influenced by Knight. It was also at Chicago that he first read and found enlightening the work of Swedish economist Knut Wicksell.[4] Photographs of Knight and Wicksell hung from his office walls ever after.

Buchanan was the founder of a new Virginia school of political economy.

He taught at the University of Virginia from 1956–1968, where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy. From 1955 to 1956 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Italy.

He taught at UCLA 1968–1969, followed by Virginia Tech 1969–1983, where he earned the title of Distinguished Professor of Economics and founded the Center for the Study of Public Choice (CSPC). In 1983, a conflict with Economics Department head Daniel M. Orr came to a head and Buchanan took the CSPC to its new home at George Mason University,[5] where he eventually retired as "professor emeritus".

He also taught at Florida State University and the University of Tennessee.

In 1988 Buchanan returned to Hawaii for the first time since the War and gave a series of lectures later published by the University Press. In 2001 Buchanan received an honorary doctoral degree from Universidad Francisco Marroquín, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, for his contribution to economics.[6]

Buchanan's work focused on public finance, the public debt, voting, rigorous analysis of the theory of logrolling, macroeconomics, constitutional economics, and libertarian theory.[7]

Buchanan died January 9, 2013, in Blacksburg, Virginia, at age 93.[8] The New York Times commented that the Nobel Prize-winning economist who championed public choice theory influenced a "generation of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government".[9] The Badische Zeitung called Buchanan, who showed how politicians undermine fair and simple tax systems, the "founder of the New Political Economy".[10]



Daring to Be Different Reflections on the Life and Work of James Buchanan

Buchanan was largely responsible for the rebirth of political economy as a scholarly pursuit.[11] Buchanan emphasized that public policy cannot be considered in terms of distribution, but is instead always a question of the choice over rules of the game that engender a pattern of exchange and distribution. His work in public choice theory is often interpreted as the quintessential case of economics imperialism;[12] however, Amartya Sen argued that Buchanan should not be identified with economics imperialism, since Buchanan has done more than most to introduce ethics, legal political thinking, and indeed social thinking into economics.[13] Crucial to understanding Buchanan's system of thought is the distinction he made between politics and policy. Politics is about the rules of the game, where policy is focused on strategies that players adopt within a given set of rules. “Questions about what are good rules of the game are in the domain of social philosophy, whereas questions about the strategies that players will adopt given those rules is the domain of economics, and it is the play between the rules (social philosophy) and the strategies (economics) that constitutes what Buchanan refers to as constitutional political economy”.[14]

Buchanan supported a 100% marginal tax rate on all inheritances above a certain amount.[15]

Buchanan's important contribution to constitutionalism is his development of the sub-discipline of constitutional economics.[16]

According to Buchanan the ethic of constitutionalism is a key for constitutional order and "may be called the idealized Kantian world" where the individual "who is making the ordering, along with substantially all of his fellows, adopts the moral law as a general rule for behaviour".[17] Buchanan rejects "any organic conception of the state as superior in wisdom, to the citizens of this state". This philosophical position forms the basis of constitutional economics. Buchanan believed that every constitution is created for at least several generations of citizens. Therefore, it must be able to balance the interests of the state, society, and each individual.[18]

Buchanan's work Cost and Choice (see below in List of publications) is often overlooked for its contributions in defining the parameters of opportunity cost. In it, he writes that the costs to individuals determine what the price of a good or service is. For example, the physical work that is required to hunt an animal as well as the price of the tools necessary to hunt it and the time spent hunting all play a factor in the price an individual places on the meat. The asking price of the meat will vary from person to person because the input costs required for each person are not the same.

Buchanan is considered to be a quasi-member of the Austrian school of economics, not formally associated with the school but sharing many common beliefs.[19] As Buchanan puts it: "I certainly have a great deal of affinity with Austrian economics and I have no objections to being called an Austrian. Hayek and Mises might consider me an Austrian but, surely some of the others would not." Buchanan went on to say that: "I didn't become acquainted with Mises until I wrote an article on individual choice and voting in the market in 1954. After I had finished the first draft I went back to see what Mises had said in Human Action. I found out, amazingly, that he had come closer to saying what I was trying to say than anybody else."[20]


  • Economics is the study of the whole system of exchange relationships. Politics is the study of the whole system of coercive or potentially coercive relationships (In What should Economists Do? 1964).
  • Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves. (The Limits of Liberty, 1975)

List of publications[]

  • He listed his principal books as of 1988 as: Liberty, Market and State, 1985; The Reason of Rules (with G. Brennan),1985; The Power to Tax (with G. Brennan),1980; What should Economists Do? 1979; Freedom in Constitutional Contract,1978; Democracy in Deficit (with R. Wagner), 1977; The Limits of Liberty, 1975; Cost and Choice, 1969; Demand and Supply of Public Goods, 1968; Public Finance in Democratic Process, 1967; The Calculus of Consent (with G. Tullock),1962; Fiscal Theory and Political Economy, 1960; Public Principles of Public Debt, 1958.
  • Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The normative vision of classical Liberalism (Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2005)
  • Economics from the Outside In: Better than Plowing and Beyond (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2007)

See also[]

  • Benefit principle
  • Club good
  • Samaritan's dilemma
  • Social contract



  1. "Mont Pelerin Society Directory". DeSmogBlog. Retrieved January 28, 2014.
  2. Reuben Kyle, From Nashville to the Nobel Prize: The Buchanans of TennesseeTemplate:Dead link (Twin Oaks Press, 2012).
  3. "Ideological Profiles of the Economics Laureates". Econ Journal Watch. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  4. McFadden, Robert D. (January 9, 2013). "James M. Buchanan, Economic Scholar and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved August 25, 2016.
  5. William C. Mitchell (1988). "Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-Five Years of Public Choice and Political Science". Public Choice 56 (2): 101–19. Template:Citation error.
  6. Honorary Doctoral Degrees at Universidad Francisco Marroquín Template:Webarchive
  7. Peter Barenboim, Natalya Merkulova. "The 25th Anniversary of Constitutional Economics: The Russian Model and Legal Reform in Russia, in The World Rule of Law Movement and Russian Legal Reform", edited by Francis Neate and Holly Nielsen, Justitsinform, Moscow (2007).
  8. "James M. Buchanan, Economic Scholar and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93". New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
  9. McFadden, Robert D. (January 9, 2013). "James M. Buchanan, Economic Scholar and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 93". New York Times.
  10. "Nobelpreisträger James M. Buchanan ist tot" (in de). Badische Zeitung. January 9, 2013.
  11. Boettke, P.J. (1998). James M. Buchanan and the rebirth of political economy, in (S. Pressman and R. Holt, eds.), Against the Grain: Dissent in Economics, pp. 21–39, Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1998
  12. Amartya Sen, in Economics and Sociology, ch. 14, Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 263
  13. Swedberg, R. (1990). Economics and Sociology: On Redefining Their Boundaries, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 263
  14. "Where Economics and Philosophy Meet: Review of The Elgar Companion to Economics and Philosophy with responses from the authors", The Economic Journal, 116 (June), 2006
  15. Lee, Dwight R. (2012) (in en). Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461459095.
  16. "Constitutional Economics". Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  17. James Buchanan, The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty, Volume 1, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1999, p. 314
  18. Buchanan, J., Logical Formulations of Constitutional Liberty, Vol. 1, Indianapolis, 1999, p. 372.
  19. Charles W. Baird. "JAMES BUCHANAN AND THE AUSTRIANS : THE COMMON GROUND" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-07-15.
  20. "An Interview with James Buchanan | Mises Institute". 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2017-07-15.

External links[]

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