Who Is James M. Buchanan Jr.?

James M. Buchanan Jr. was an American economist and winner of the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his contributions to public choice theory.

Breaking Down James M. Buchanan Jr.

James M. Buchanan Jr. was born in Tennessee in 1919 and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

He taught at the University of Virginia from 1956 to 1968, where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy. He taught at UCLA from 1968 to 1969, at Virginia Tech from 1969 to 1983, and then at George Mason University where he eventually retired with emeritus status.

In his career, Buchanan was also a member of the Board of Advisors of the Independent Institute, a member and former president of the Mont Pelerin Society, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute. Along with fellow economist Gordon Tullock, he wrote the well-known book The Calculus of Consent, which presents the basic principles of public choice theory and is considered to be one of the classic works from the discipline of public choice in political science and economics. Buchanan died in 2013 at the age of 93.

Public Choice Theory

Buchanan is known to be the architect of public choice theory, which applies economics to political decision-making. Public choice theory defies the conventional wisdom that politicians act in the best interests of their constituents and instead analyzes how incentives shape politicians' choices to act in their own self-interest. Buchanan's work initiated additional research on how politicians' self-interest, utility maximization, and other non-monetary-maximizing considerations affect their decision-making.

Buchanan’s insights regarding human nature and political outcomes provide a broader understanding of the incentives that motivate political actors and allow for more accurate predictions of political decision-making. Within public choice theory, voters, lawmakers, and bureaucrats are not simply assumed to always act in the best public interest, but to also make political decisions with personal gain in mind. Buchanan’s public choice theory is often regarded as “politics without romance.”

Public choice theory is closely related to social choice theory, which is a mathematical approach to the combined variables of individual interests and how those interests affect voter behavior. Economist Kenneth Arrow developed social choice theory, which is explained in his 1951 book Social Choice and Individual Values. Because voter behavior influences politicians’ behavior, public choice theory often builds off of social choice theory. Both theories are classified under the study of public economics.