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James McGill Buchanan Jr. (/bjuːˈkænən/; October 3, 1919 – January 9, 2013) was an American economist known for his work on public choice theory[1] (included in his most famous work, co-authored with Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, 1962), for which he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 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 as well as of the Institute of Economic Affairs,[2] a member (and for a time president) of the Mont Pelerin Society,[3] a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute, and professor at George Mason University.

James M. Buchanan
James Buchanan by Atlas network.jpg
Buchanan in September 2010
James McGill Buchanan Jr.

(1919-10-03)October 3, 1919
DiedJanuary 9, 2013(2013-01-09) (aged 93)
InstitutionGeorge Mason University
Virginia Tech
University of Virginia
FieldPublic choice theory
Constitutional economics
Austrian economics
School or
Virginia school of political economy
Alma materUniversity of Chicago
University of Tennessee
Middle Tennessee State University
InfluencesJohn Stuart Mill
Frank Knight
Knut Wicksell
Gordon Tullock
Friedrich Hayek[1]
Ludwig von Mises[1]
ContributionsPublic choice theory
Benefit principle
Club good
Samaritan's dilemma
AwardsNobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (1986)
Information at IDEAS / RePEc


Buchanan was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the eldest child of James and Lila (Scott) Buchanan, a family of Scotch-Irish descent. He was a grandson of John P. Buchanan, a governor of Tennessee in the 1890s.[4] He attended Middle Tennessee State Teachers College (since 1965 known as Middle Tennessee State University) in 1940 by living at home and working on the farm. Buchanan completed his M.S. at the University of Tennessee in 1941. He served in the United States Navy on the staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Honolulu during the war years, 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".[5] Buchanan received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1948 with a thesis on "Fiscal Equity in a Federal State", which was heavily influenced by Knight. It was also at Chicago that he first read and found enlightening the work of Swedish economist Knut Wicksell.[6] Photographs of Knight and Wicksell hung on 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 held the title 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,[7] where he eventually retired with emeritus status.

He also taught at Florida State University (1951-1956) and the University of Tennessee.

In 1969 Buchanan became the first director of the Center for the Study of Public Choice. He was president of the Southern Economic Association in 1963 and of the Western Economic Association in 1983 and 1984, and vice president of the American Economic Association in 1971.

In 1988, Buchanan returned to Hawaii for the first time since World War II and gave a series of lectures later published by the University Press.

Personal life and deathEdit

Buchanan died January 9, 2013, in Blacksburg, Virginia, at age 93.[6] 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".[6] The Badische Zeitung (Freiburg) called Buchanan, who showed how politicians undermine fair and simple tax systems, the "founder of the new political economy".[8]



Buchanan's legacy lives on through a fellowship program at the University Honors College of Middle Tennessee State University.[10]


Buchanan's work focused on public finance, the public debt, voting, rigorous analysis of the theory of logrolling, macroeconomics, constitutional economics, and libertarian theory.[11]

Approach to economic analysisEdit

Buchanan was largely responsible for the rebirth of political economy as a scholarly pursuit.[12] He emphasized that public policy cannot be considered solely in terms of distribution, but is instead always a matter of setting the rules of the game that engender a pattern of exchange and distribution. His work in public choice theory is often interpreted as the quintessential instance of economics imperialism;[13] however, Amartya Sen has argued that Buchanan should not be identified with economics imperialism, since he has done more than most to introduce ethics, legal political thinking, and indeed social thinking into economics.[14] 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".[15]

Buchanan supported a 100% marginal tax rate on all inheritances above a certain amount.[16]

Buchanan's important contribution to constitutionalism is his development of the sub-discipline of constitutional economics.[17]

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".[18] 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.[19]

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.[1] 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. Friedrich 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]

Public choice theoryEdit

James Buchanan is considered the architect of public choice theory. In fact, his work within Public Choice earned him the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1986. Public choice theory focuses on people's decision making process within the political realm. Buchanan used both the fields of economics and political science to help develop Public Choice. The same principles used to interpret people's decisions in a market setting are applied to voting, lobbying, campaigning, and even candidates. Buchanan maintains that a person's first instinct is to make their decisions based upon their own self-interest. Buchanan explains public choice theory as "politics without romance" because, he says, many of the promises made in politics are intended to appear concerned with the interest of others, but in reality are the products of selfish ulterior motives. According to this view, political decisions, on both sides of the voting booth, are rarely made with the intention of helping anyone but the one making the decision. Buchanan argues that by analyzing the behaviors of voters and politicians that their actions could become easily predicted.[21]

Democracy in ChainsEdit

In 2017, Nancy MacLean published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America.[22] Her book claims that Buchanan saw a conflict between "economic freedom and political liberty", and that he sought "conspiratorial secrecy" in pursuit of "a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich".[23] The book has garnered heavy criticism from both libertarian and non-libertarian writers for its perceived flaws in the use of quotes, sources, and the accuracy of its overall thesis.[24] Political scientists Henry Farrell (of George Washington University) and Steven Teles (of Johns Hopkins University) described the book as "conspiracy theory in the guise of intellectual history."[24] In a review by economists Jean-Baptiste Fleury and Alain Marciano in the Journal of Economic Literature, they write, "MacLean's account is marred by many misunderstandings about public choice theory" and "in the midst of abundant archival material, her historical narrative is, at best sketchy, and is replete with significantly flawed arguments, misplaced citations, and dubious conjectures. Overall, MacLean tends to overinterpret certain aspects in Buchanan's life and thought, while she overlooks others that are equally important in understanding his work and influence."[25]

In particular, the claim that Buchanan supported segregation has been disputed as untrue and contradicted by evidence that MacLean's book omits. Buchanan played a key role in bringing prominent South African apartheid critic William Harold Hutt as guest lecturer to the University of Virginia in 1965, during which he also sharply condemned Jim Crow laws.[26]


Buchanan's works include:

  • Public Principles of Public Debt, 1958
  • Fiscal Theory and Political Economy, 1960
  • The Calculus of Consent (with Gordon Tullock), 1962
  • Public Finance in Democratic Process, 1967
  • Demand and Supply of Public Goods, 1968
  • Cost and Choice, 1969
  • The Limits of Liberty, 1975
  • Democracy in Deficit (with Richard E. Wagner), 1977
  • Freedom in Constitutional Contract, 1978
  • What Should Economists Do? 1979
  • The Power to Tax (with Geoffrey Brennan), 1980
  • The Reason of Rules (with Geoffrey Brennan), 1985
  • Liberty, Market and State, 1985
  • 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

A listing of Buchanan's publications from 1949 to 1986 can be found at the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 1987, 89(1), pp. 17–37.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Charles W. Baird. "James Buchanan and the Austrians: The Common Ground" (PDF). Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  2. ^ Buchanan, James M; Burton, John; Wagner, R.E. (1978). The consequences of Mr. Keynes (PDF). Institute of Economic Affairs.
  3. ^ "Mont Pelerin Society Past Presidents". Mont Pelerin Society. Retrieved September 4, 2018.
  4. ^ Reuben Kyle, From Nashborough to the Nobel Prize: The Buchanans of Tennessee (Murfreesboro: Twin Oaks Press, 2012).
  5. ^ "Ideological Profiles of the Economics Laureates". Econ Journal Watch. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  6. ^ a b c 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.
  7. ^ William C. Mitchell (1988). "Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-Five Years of Public Choice and Political Science". Public Choice. 56 (2): 101–19. doi:10.1007/BF00115751.
  8. ^ "Nobelpreisträger James M. Buchanan ist tot". Badische Zeitung (in German). January 9, 2013.
  9. ^ Honorary Doctoral Degrees at Universidad Francisco Marroquín Archived May 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "Buchanan Fellowship Booklet"
  11. ^ 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).
  12. ^ Peter Boettke, "James M. Buchanan and the Rebirth of Political Economy", in Against the Grain: Dissent in Economics, ed. S. Press and R. Holt (Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1998), pp. 21-39.
  13. ^ Amartya Sen, in Economics and Sociology, ch. 14, Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 263
  14. ^ R. Swedberg, Economics and Sociology: On Redefining Their Boundaries (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 263.
  15. ^ "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
  16. ^ Lee, Dwight R. (2012). Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461459095.
  17. ^ "Constitutional Economics" (PDF). Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  18. ^ James Buchanan, The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty, Volume 1, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1999, p. 314
  19. ^ Buchanan, J., Logical Formulations of Constitutional Liberty, Vol. 1, Indianapolis, 1999, p. 372.
  20. ^ "An Interview with James Buchanan". Ludwig von Mises Institute. July 30, 2014. Retrieved July 15, 2017.
  21. ^ Buchanan Biography. Public Choice Theory. Public Choice explained
  22. ^ MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking, 2017. ISBN 9781101980989
  23. ^ Monbiot, George (July 19, 2017). "A Despot in Disguise: One Man's Mission to Rip Up Democracy". The Guardian. Retrieved July 19, 2017.
  24. ^ a b Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, "Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them." Vox, Oct 9, 2017, 1:50pm EDT
  25. ^ Marciano, Alain; Fleury, Jean-Baptiste (2018). "The Sound of Silence: A Review Essay of Nancy MacLean's <em>Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America</em>". Journal of Economic Literature. 56 (4): 1492–1537. doi:10.1257/jel.20181502. ISSN 0022-0515.
  26. ^ Brian Doherty, "What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong About James Buchanan". reason, July 20, 2017

Further readingEdit

  • Atkinson, Anthony B. "James M. Buchanan's Contributions to Economics". Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 1987, vol. 89, no. 1, pp. 5–15.
  • Brennan, G., Kliemt, H., and Tollison, R.D. (eds.) Method and Morals in Constitutional Economics: Essays in Honor of James M. Buchanan. Berlin: Springer, 2002. ISBN 9783642075513
  • Kasper, Sherryl. The Revival of Laissez-Faire in American Macroeconomic Theory: A Case Study of Its Pioneers, Chapter 6. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2002. ISBN 9781840646061
  • Leeson, Peter. "Buchanan, James M. (1919– )." Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, pp. 40–51. Ronald Hamowy, ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute, 2008. ISBN 9781412965804
  • Meadowcroft, John. James M. Buchanan. London: Continuum, 2011. ISBN 9781501301513
  • Palda, Filip. A Better Kind of Violence: Chicago Political Economy, Public Choice, and the Quest for an Ultimate Theory of Power. Kingston: Cooper-Wolfling, 2016. ISBN 9780987788078
  • Pittard, Homer. The First Fifty Years, pp. 136, 173. Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State College, 1961.
  • Reisman, David A. The Political Economy of James Buchanan. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990. ISBN 9780333476390

External linksEdit