James Buchanan, RIP

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan passed away today. Buchanan was one of the founders of public choice economics, which seeks to apply economic analysis to politics. Closely related was his important work applying economic analysis to constitutions, most notably in his classic work The Calculus of Consent, coauthored with Gordon Tullock. The burgeoning field of constitutional political economy was in large part his creation. Buchanan also did path-breaking research on federalism, public finance, and the theory of externalities and public goods.

Buchanan was a giant of twentieth century economics, and his work has had a wide influence on scholars in many disciplines, including law. My own work on federalism and constitutional theory is indebted to him. Buchanan’s approach to public choice was also an important contribution to libertarian thought, since it undercut the view that government – including democratic government- can be depended on to promote the public interest and correct market failures. As Buchanan helped demonstrate, once we use the same economic tools to analyze government action as were previously applied to private sector activity, government failure often turns out to be worse than the market failure that government action was supposedly intended to cure. But Buchanan’s influence also extended to many liberal and conservative scholars, as well as libertarian ones. For example, John Rawls drew on his work extensively in his Theory of Justice, probably the most important work of left-liberal political philosophy of the last fifty years.

For a helpful concise summary of some of Buchanan’s most important contributions, see here.