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Remembering James M. Buchanan

James M. Buchanan, the Nobel laureate in economics and father of public choice theory, has passed away at the age of 93. Buchanan’s influence on PERC and free market environmentalism has deep roots, and formed the foundation for PERC’s early work on environmental issues.

As Buchanan was fond of saying, public choice theory is “politics without romance.” Public choice applies standard economic models of rational decision making to participants in the public sphere, such as politicians, policymakers, and voters. The result has been a transformation of how economists and political scientists view the world.

PERC senior fellow Randy Simmons offers his reflection on Buchanan below:

The first, and I believe, most important book I read in graduate school was James Buchanan’s Freedom in Constitutional Contract: Perspectives of a Political Economist. My undergraduate education was in behavioral political science and I went to graduate school planning to study public opinion polling. But then I read Freedom in Constitutional Contract, which completely redirected my graduate education. By the time I defended my dissertation, I had been baptized and confirmed into Virginia public choice.

One of the first and most important things I learned from Buchanan is that studying choice should not be the purpose of economics at all. On page 25, he explained:

“I have often argued that there is only one principle in economics that is worth stressing, and that the economists’ didactic function is one of conveying some understanding of this principle to the public at large. Apart from this principle there would be no basis for general public support for economics as a legitimate academic discipline, no place for economics as an appropriate part of a liberal education. I refer, of course, to the principle of the spontaneous order of the market, which was the great intellectual discovery of the eighteenth century.”

The principle of spontaneous order in the market is the basis of free market environmentalism. It is the core of PERC’s Enviropreneur programs. I continue to be amazed at the orders that arise around us.

I am grateful to Jim Buchanan for reorienting my intellectual journey. I am grateful for PERC inviting me as a young professor to conferences where I got to know Jim. He and I even played horseshoes on a Fourth of July at a PERC conference. I think he won.

The collected works of James Buchanan can be read online at the Library of Economics and Liberty. The video below has more on Buchanan’s life and legacy:

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