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James M. Buchanan: Realistic Optimist

by Matt Mitchell on January 11, 2013

in Public Choice

This week we mourn the passing and celebrate the achievements of James M. Buchanan. There have already been many moving and informative tributes. Alex Tabarrok offers a nice summary here. I was fortunate to take one of the last classes Buchanan taught. Even though he was well into his eighties, I found him to be sharp, enthusiastic, and more than a little intimidating to this graduate student.

I’m sure people will be debating Buchanan’s contributions and legacy for quite some time. One aspect that seems unsettled is the degree to which Buchanan’s legacy is optimistic or fatalistic. An old exchange I had with Matt Yglesias highlights the optimism I found in Buchanan’s work:

Back in 2011, in a post titled “Against Public Choice, For Public Virtue,” Matt declared: “I don’t really “get” public choice and think I never will.” He argued:

The observation that malgovernment is a major source of human ills is quite correct, but embracing fatalism about it only exacerbates the problem. What’s needed are efforts to push societies in the direction of taking honor and civic obligation more seriously, not less so.

In a post responding to Matt, I made the case that public choice is no more fatalistic about government failure than other branches of econ are fatalistic about market failure:

Consider a problem from normal economics: the tragedy of the commons. Armed with empirical and theoretical reasons to expect that fishermen will over-fish a common pool, we should plan accordingly. We should examine the incentives of fishermen and think of ways to improve or alter these incentives (e.g., assign property rights over the pool, or impose a Pigouvian tax). To my knowledge, few if any economists would council that we ought to spend our time begging fisherman to pretty please stop overfishing. That is likely to be a fool’s errand.

The idea is much the same with public choice. Armed with empirical and theoretical reasons to think that politicians might do bad things, we should plan accordingly by placing some things—such as the establishment of religion—beyond the reach of politicians. I suppose we could ask Congress to pretty please not establish a religion but in my view it is better to make it illegal for them to do so.

James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and the other founders of Public Choice and its close-cousin Constitutional Political Economy didn’t stop their analysis after they found that politicians sometimes behave badly. Like James Madison before them, they thought of constructive ways to make political actors behave better, sometimes by placing certain decisions beyond their reach.

There is nothing fatalistic about that.

 

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