Friday, January 11, 2013

A Time to Remember: a Memorial to a Nobel Laureate, James M. Buchanan (1919-2013)

Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan passed away January 2013. His death, to his family, colleagues, friends and students, was heart retching. For me, personally, it was devastating as I was looking forwards to see professor Buchanan at least one more time at the Public Choice Society meeting in March celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work (with Gordon Tullock): “The Calculus of Consent”. One knows that death is always waiting at the doorstep, but never realizes it until it comes.

Today, I find myself in remembrance of Jim Buchanan looking back at the history of public Economics. In remembrance one accepts death as a continuation of life. Today, like so many others of Jim’s colleagues and friends, I face his passing through remembrance of what his life’s accomplishments have meant to us, colleges, friends, students, but most of all to our discipline—the discipline of public economics.

Professor James Buchanan together with professor Gordon Tullock have revolutionized our thinking about the role of the individual in a free society, and how he/she interacts (or should) interact with the sovereign. Their Philosophy embodied in the Calculus of Consent will forever light our way as we seek to forge a relation tempered with good will with the representatives of the public sector—the sovereign.

The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (1962) was published by the University of Michigan Press. At the time of publication I was a PhD student in Economics at the University of Michigan. One of my fields of specialization was Public Economics, known then as Public Finance. I studied with Professor Richard Musgrave, known then as well as today as the father of public economics. I felt so fortunate to be one of his students and since my graduation; I have remained faithful to the discipline of public Economics.

As a student of Richard Musgrave, I have espoused a positive role for the public sector. The individual, to be sure had a role to play in setting budget allocation and distribution, but the framework of analyses left no room to think about an alternative arrangement—arrangement where the individual in a democratic setting sets the rules by which the “sovereign” is to interact with the individual in a “public choice” setting.

Not until I met Professors James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock at VPI in 1975 at the campus of the University (where I was invited to join the Public Choice group housed in the so called “white House” of the university) that I have realized that an alternative view of the public economy should complement the traditional study of the public economy. Although at that time I could not accept the invitation to join, it has given me an entrĂ©e to the field of public choice. Listening to Professors Buchanan and Tullock discussing the shortcomings of our knowledge about the role of the individual in the sphere of public economics I appreciated the force of the arguments presented in the Calculus of Consent. Reading it over and again I realized the enormous task and the burden the Calculus of Consent has placed on students of public economics. It was a path breaking for all of us students of public economics to understand what public choice is about and how individuals’ choice has to be effected in a democratic setting. The rest is history.

The Nobel Prize Committee in awarding the Nobel Prize to James Buchanan in 1986 has cited his contribution for: “the Development of the Contractual and Constitutional Bases for the Theory of Economic and Political Decision Making”. Not quite adequate a description of the colossal impacts of the contribution of Buchanan to the study of the public economy. Students of the public Economy have found in the Calculus of Consent a blue print, a guide to the complex and intricate relationship that has existed and remain so between the rights and aspirations of the individual in a democratic setting against the power of a sovereign motivated by self interest or the so-called the public interest.

For those of us whose task was, perhaps still is, the search for those institutions that would meet the Buchanan ideal of the Contractual and Constitutional bases for a theory of the public economy, need look no further than a second reading of the Calculus of Consent.

The public choice school, the brainchild of Buchanan and Tullock enriched the economist’s knowledge of the process of decision making when the collectivity replaces the individual as the decision maker. The contribution of the public choice school, when put in the frame of reference of our forefathers; the political economists dating back to the 17th century, clearly changed the landscape for the study of the public economy.

But, there is a softer side to Professor Buchanan. When I first met the great Economist, Professor Buchanan, I did not think that I could talk with him about other life undertakings. I found out how easy and wonderful it was to listen to Jim talking about his home in Blacksburg, Virginia, the pecan trees he had where he spent a relaxing time shelling those pecans, and to my delight found out that we shared the love of one author; Nevil Shute. One particular novel we both felt it to be a great novel was: “In The Wet”. I told Jim that I have gone to Torquay, England to see the place where Nevil Shute wrote his novels. At that time I was given the task to put together a conference sponsored by the Liberty Fund, and we thought perhaps it would be nice to have the conference there. Unfortunately, that was not done; I guess the expenses would have exceeded the grant.

Many of Jim colleagues, students and friends, I am sure, would have a great deal of soft memories of the Jim Buchanan, the great economist and the wonderful thoughtful human being. In his presence, you felt his greatness flow over and engulf you with warmth and appreciation of being there. Those of us who knew him, personally or through his writings, will always carry with us the soft glow imparted on us in knowing him and been rewarded with a glimpse of his inner thought. The economic profession has lost one of its pillars, but he lives on through his contributions to the economics discipline and the many students who followed in his footsteps.

Professor Buchanan: We shall miss you, but your thoughts will forever live on.


Niru said...

I think this is fitting tribute to the contribution made by Professor Buchanan to the field of Public Economics.

Enjoyed reading your blog columns.

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