Who Was James M. Buchanan Jr.?

James M. Buchanan Jr. was an American economist and a Nobel Prize winner. Buchanan won the prize in 1986 in economics for his contributions to public choice theory. He co-founded the public choice theory with another economist, Gordon Tullock. The theory is used to analyze how economics ties in with the decisions of politicians. Buchanan explored a number of different economic schools of thought, including libertarianism and free-market thinking. He also wrote a number of books about politics and the economy.

Key Takeaways

  • James M. Buchanan Jr. was an author, economist, and Nobel Prize winner.
  • He studied at the University of Tennesee and the University of Chicago.
  • Buchanan studied a variety of economic disciplines, including libertarian socialism and free markets.
  • He is credited with co-founding the public choice theory with another economist, Gordon Tullock.
  • Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his contributions to public choice theory.

Understanding James M. Buchanan Jr.

James M. Buchanan Jr. was born in Tennessee in 1919. He studied at the Middle Tennessee State College and the University of Tennessee, where he graduated with a graduate degree. He spent five years in the Navy before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

He taught at the University of Virginia between 1956 and 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.

Buchanan spent part of his career as 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. He also explored a variety of different modes of economic thought, including libertarian socialism and free-market capitalism throughout his career.

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. In 1986, Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for "his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making."

Buchanan died in 2013 at the age of 93.

Public Choice Theory

Buchanan and Tullock are often considered as the architects of public choice theory. This theory applies economics to political decision-making and defies the conventional wisdom that politicians act in the best interests of their constituents and 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. His 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 the 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 vs. Social Choice Theory

Public choice theory is closely related to social choice theory. Both of these schools of thought are classified under the study of public economics.

The difference between them lies in the fact that social choice theory is a mathematical approach to the combined variables of individual interests and how those interests affect voter behavior. Put simply, it considers whether society can be ordered in such a way that it reflects individual rather than collective preferences.

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 the social choice theory.