LETTER TO THE EDITOR: James Buchanan and his legacy in economics

Over winter break I was saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. James Buchanan. I would like to offer condolences to Betty Tillman, his secretary of over fifty years.

As Mason’s first Nobel laureate, winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1986, he put the university and its economics program on the map. Buchanan’s work was groundbreaking and has inspired countless colleagues and students. He leaves behind a prolific list of books and papers that he authored as a testament to his work ethic and remarkable mind.

He is best known as the leading figure of Public Choice theory, which uses economic tools to analyze non-market decision-making. Before the Public Choice revolution, most academics assumed that politicians and other government actors act in the best interest of the public. Public Choice turned that assumption on its head by showing that political actors are just as self-interested and motivated by incentives as economic actors. Though most people may be inclined to blame politicians for the dysfunction of Washington, Buchanan showed that the real problem lies in the institutions that create the perverse incentives that lead us down the road of debt, deficit and inflation.

Dr. Buchanan was unorthodox in many ways—a trait which he embraced--referring to himself as part of the “great unwashed of academia.”  As a farm boy from Tennessee, he attended humble rural schools and a small state college before entering the PhD program at Chicago. He taught only in southern universities, and he shunned the mathematical models of his more conventional peers. Yet he became one of the most consequential economists in the history of economic thought.

Though he has passed on, his ideas will continue to live in the hearts and minds of his colleagues and students. Rest in Peace.

This short film on the influence of James Buchanan was produced in 2008 in conjunction with The Center for the Study of Public Choice and The Buchanan House: Buchanan Daring to Be Different: Reflections on the Life and Work of James Buchanan


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