James Buchanan: A Plea for Help

Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan died earlier this week, and I have to say he really stands out for such a highly regarded scholar as someone who’s work I feel like I don’t understand or appreciate. This is not, I think, because of his right-wing politics. I don’t agree with Milton Friedman about everything and I think Hayek wrote some foolish things but I’m also comfortable explaining what their major contributions are and ways in which they’ve influenced the thinking of people who don’t fully share their conclusions.

And then there’s Buchanan and public choice. The way this works, as I understand it, is that economists came to pay a lot of attention to “market failures” over time.

Situations arise all the time in which a benevolent social planner could improve on a market outcome because of externalities, information issues, transaction costs, high barriers to entry, etc. There are deep structural reasons why something like the market for cable television doesn’t and never will feature any great resemblance to something like the highly competitive market for commodity corn. Buchanan’s point is that is that an actual regulator or politician is not a benevolent social planner, but instead a regular person with regular motives. So while an unregulated local utility company might be a vicious exploitative monopolist, the director of a publicly owned utility might be a viciously exploitative bureaucrat, or the chief of a public utility regulatory commission might be viciously exploitative corrupt hack. You can’t just infer from the existence of a market failure that a regulatory solution will in fact emerge.

Absolutely true. But also I think a little banal. People were aware of the problem of political corruption and malfeasance before Buchanan came along. What’s always been tricky is the question of how to build effective public institutions? Why are there some places where the cops shake people down for bribes and others where the cops enforce the law and protect personal property (and of course with many intermediate cases)? Why are some military organizations effective and others fail? Lots of people have done lots of interesting work on these questions (I greatly enjoyed recent books by Acemoglu & Robinson and Francis Fukuyama) from an instituational and historical perspective.

And to the best of my understanding, Buchanan didn’t really do any of that work or show much interest in the question. Instead his big idea, more or less, is that we should have constitutions that mandate libertarianism.

Now I will happily concede that I may be missing something. Many very smart people seem to have a very high regard for Buchanan’s work. But they’re not doing a very good job of conveying it to me. Brad DeLong says Buchanan got a lot right that “nobody else would have gotten right in his absence” but doesn’t say what those things are. Tyler Cowen says he was “one of the least well understood and least accessible economics Nobel Laureates” and doesn’t try to explain what he was saying. Arnold Kling praises the depth of Buchanan’s thought and then quotes what sounds like gibberish to me. Based on those testimonials, I’m thinking that the error here is probably mine. Buchanan is responsible for some deep, hard to understand, and relatively inaccessible ideas and I am not understanding them or appreciating their depth. But I wish some of his fans on the Internet would try to explain what these are, since the basics seem correct to me but not overwhelmingly original or deep.