Remembering James Buchanan

Remembering James Buchanan

January 10th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan died on Wednesday at age 93.

Buchanan was a Tennessee native, born and raised in Murfreesboro, who earned degrees from Middle Tennessee State and the University of Tennessee before serving in World War II and obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

In 1986, Buchanan received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on economic and political decision-making.

Many obituaries and remembrances of Buchanan will cause readers' eyes to glaze over when they mention his role in popularizing public choice theory or comment on his contribution to political economy, the subfield of economics and political science that considers how political institutions impact the economy.

To put Buchanan's role simply: He, more than any other person, is responsible for exposing and the flaws in socialism and explaining how government planning generally leaves citizens much worse off in the long run.

Writing on the blog "Bleeding Heart Libertarians," St. Lawrence University economics professor and former Buchanan student Steve Horwitz remarked, "If we want to understand why decades of government solutions have not been very successful at improving the condition of the least well off, public choice theory and Buchanan's work is the place to start."

Buchanan demonstrated governments' failures and correctly warned of the economic and social tumult that would result from allowing government to grow larger, spend more, increase the number of burdensome regulations, borrow money and run huge deficits.

Buchanan used economic models and stacks of data to prove that politicians working, as most do, to gain power and get reelected, don't act in the best interest of the public. Ultimately, Buchanan argued, instead of helping their constituents, politicians more often hurt competition, distort markets and harm customers.

One of the Nobel laureate's most chillingly accurate predictions was pointed out by Tyler Cowen, a colleague of Buchanan's at the George Mason University economics department. In a March 2011 New York Times commentary, Cowen recalled that Buchanan anticipated that "deficit spending for short-term gains would evolve into 'a permanent disconnect' between government outlays and revenue."

"We end up institutionalizing irresponsibility in the federal government, the largest and most central institution in our society," Dr. Cowen wrote. "As we fail to make progress on entitlement reform with each passing year, Professor Buchanan's essentially moral critique of deficit spending looks more prophetic."

Few people did more to advance liberty over the last half of the 20th century than Buchanan. His research demonstrated how politicians could best improve the lives of their constituents. It's just too bad that more politicians don't take his advice.