James M. Buchanan

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James Buchanan, 2010.

James McGill Buchanan, Jr. (3 October 19199 January 2013) was an American economist known for his work on public choice theory, who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics.

See Also
Democracy in Deficit


  • I did not call him "Fritz." To me he remained always "Professor Hayek," despite his own graciousness in treating me as a peer. I shall not attempt to evaluate Professor Hayek's monumental contribution to our understanding of the events of this turbulent century, to the influence of his ideas on these events themselves or even to the development of economic theory in a strictly scientific sense.
    • "I did not call him “Fritz”: Personal recollections of Professor F. A. v. Hayek." Constitutional Political Economy 3.2 (1992): 129-135.
  • Well, we haven’t learnt yet to live together peacefully... But I don’t know what progress really means. Anyway, I think we need to have faith in the fact that there is more out there to be explained. Even the paradigms that we now have, including subjective value theory, for example, are only provisional. Some physicist might believe that ultimately, we will be able to explain everything. To me, that is utterly stupid, just like saying that an atheist is equally dogmatic as a Texas Baptist. It seems to me that, if you accept evolution, you can still not expect your dog to get up and start talking German. And that’s because your dog is not genetically programmed to do that. We are human animals, and we are equally bound. There are whole realms of discourse out there that we cannot reach, by definition. There are always going to be limits beyond which we cannot go. Knowing that they are there, you can always hope to move a little closer – but that’s all.
    • In: Karen Ilse Horn (ed.) Roads to Wisdom, Conversations With Ten Nobel Laureates in Economics (2009)

Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes (1977)[edit]

Main article: Democracy in Deficit

Public Choice: The Origins and Development of a Research Program (2003)[edit]

"Public Choice: The Origins and Development of a Research Program", Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University (2003)

  • The hard core in public choice can be summarized in three presuppositions: (1) methodological individualism, (2) rational choice, and (3) politics-as-exchange.
  • It was at this point that I entered the discussion with a generalized critique of the whole corpus of analysis generated by the Arrow–Black approach (Buchanan 1954a, 1954b). If, indeed, preferences differ over collective alternatives, and if these preferences are such as to generate cycles in voting outcomes, would not this result be precisely that which is best? Any attainment of a unique solution by majority voting would amount to the permanent imposition of the majority’s will on the outvoted minority. Would not a guaranteed rotation, as produced through the cycle, be the preferred sequence here? In such a cyclical sequence, the members of the minority in the first round are enabled to come back in subsequent rounds and ascend to majority membership. My concern, then and later, was always with means of preventing discrimination against members of minorities rather than ensuring that, somehow, majority rule produced stable sets of political outcomes.
    Examined from an economist’s perspective, what guarantee could majority rule offer against collective actions that were inefficient in the standard Pareto sense? Clearly, the natural feature of majority voting is the separation of the interests of members of the majority from those of the minority. On any single voting sequence, some persons in the inclusive polity must lose and others must gain. How can collective choice be made more efficient? And more just?
  • Public choice then came along and provided analyses of the behavior of persons acting politically, whether voters, politicians or bureaucrats. These analyses exposed the essentially false comparisons that were then informing so much of both scientific and public opinion. In a very real sense, public choice became a set of theories of governmental failures, as an offset to the theories of market failures that had previously emerged from theoretical welfare economics. Or, as I put it in the title of a lecture in Vienna in 1978, public choice may be summarized by the three-word description, 'politics without romance'.
  • A version of the old fable about the king's nakedness may be helpful here. Public choice is like the small boy who said that the king really has no clothes. Once he said this, everyone recognized that the king's nakedness had been recognized, but that no-one had really called attention to this fact.
  • Public choice did not emerge from some profoundly new insight, some new discovery, some social science miracle. Public choice, in its basic insights into the workings of politics, in corporates an understanding of human nature that differs little, if at all, from that of James Madison and his colleagues at the time of the American Founding. The essential wisdom of the 18th century, of Adam Smith and classical political economy and of the American Founders, was lost through two centuries of intellectual folly. Public choice does little more than incorporate a rediscovery of this wisdom and its implications into economic analyses of modern politics.

Quotes about Buchanan[edit]

  • In short, if Buchanan's argument was that liberal demands for an ever expanding welfare state would lead to chronic deficits, history has shown him to be wrong. If the argument is that the desire for tax cuts and increased military spending, coupled with macroeconomic mismanagement, could lead to large deficits, there is a strong case.
  • Buchanan’s work changed political economy in fundamental ways. Thanks to him and his colleagues, three things are true: No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of his contributions to constitutional political economy.
  • The basic concern of Buchanan (e.g. Buchanan, 1975) is to deny that a libertarian position requires the making of ethical judgments of the kind made by social philosophers who 'play God'. ... It follows that liberalism is about determination of the 'correct' contractual procedures which will allow individuals to consent to intervention by government. That procedure, if it is to be compatible with an individualist position, requires, so far as is practically possible, unanimous consent. Therefore, the common procedure used by economists to identify a social welfare function which is then to be 'maximized' implicitly rejects the individualistic decision-making process, which is the only mechanism through which individuals both express preferences and have them acted upon. To claim that preferences can be revealed and acted upon by governments, unencumbered by individuals' consent, is to presuppose that they and their officials will always act in an enlightened and wholly disinterested way. It is a curious paradox that, in the light of Buchanan's distaste for Keynesian elitism (see Buchanan, 1991), there are elements in Keynes's rather fragmentary thinking on political matters which express a sympathy with an individualistic stance.
    • Alan T. Peacock, "Keynes and the role of the State", IV. Keynes As an End State Liberal

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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