Buchanan’s Early Life and Education
James M. Buchanan (1919–2013)was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Although he lived and worked on his family’s farm growing up, Buchanan’s grandfather had been elected governor of Tennessee in the late nineteenth century.
For his undergraduate work, Buchanan attended Middle Tennessee State Teachers College (now known as Middle Tennessee State University) in Murfreesboro, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1940. He obtained his master’s degree the following year, in 1941, from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
When the US entered World War II at the end of 1941, Buchanan joined the Navy. Because of his higher education, he was assigned to the staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Honolulu, Hawaii.
After the war was over, Buchanan entered the doctoral program in economics at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in 1948 with a dissertation written under the supervision of Frank H. Knight.
While at Chicago, Buchanan read and became enamored of the writings of the Swedish economic Knut Wicksell, who had attempted to synthesize the classical and the Austrian theories. Buchanan kept pictures of Knight and Wicksell on his office wall, showing his own proclivity for theoretical eclecticism.
In the early years of his career, Buchanan thought of himself as a socialist, though in later years he admitted he had always been less in favor of big government than he was against big business.
He has also stated that his critical stance towards laissez-faire ideology was reinforced by his experiences in the Navy, where he witnessed men from the Northeast or from higher social strata advance through the ranks ahead of their compatriots from other geographical regions and social strata.
After graduation, it took Buchanan several years to find regular academic employment. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Italy during the 1955–1956 academic year.
In 1956, Buchanan obtained his first regular, tenure-track position at the University of Virginia, where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy.
Buchanan moved to UCLA for the 1968–1969 academic year. In 1969, he accepted a tenure-track position at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia. While there, he founded the Center for the Study of Public Choice (CSPC).
In 1983, Buchanan moved to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he took the CSPC along with him. Buchanan spent the rest of his career at George Mason.
Buchanan was both highly original (see next section) and incredibly prolific (see Buchanan’s Main Works below).
Buchanan himself published some 25 monographs and essay collections over the course of his long life, not counting many additional volumes of collected essays compiled by others, notably among the several volumes of such essays (not listed separately below) compiled especially for the The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, published in 20 volumes between 1999 and 2002.
In 1986, Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Buchanan’s most-important contribution to the science of economics is the concept of “public choice theory,” which he developed over many years in cooperation with Gordon Tullock and other colleagues. However, Buchanan’s contribution was by far the most significant one.
The basic idea underlying public choice theory (or “public choice,” for short) is that the classic tools of economic analysis may be successfully applied to the actions (“choices”) of political and governmental (“public”) actors, as well.
Public choice has had a profound impact on political science, but it is in its application of political economy that its influence has been especially felt.
Buchanan’s central insight was that the individual human actors who make public choices (voters, politicians, bureaucrats) are analogous to the rational actors who make economic decisions as posted by classical economic theory.
This means that the standard mathematical formalisms that have been created to analyze economic activity—such as constrained utility maximization, game theory, decision theory, etc.—may be applied to political activity, as well.
Expressed in simpler terms, Buchanan’s work was extremely important in demonstrating—and winning widespread recognition of—the fact that government bureaucracies generally act in a self-protective manner that may have no relation to their official function.
Buchanan’s Main Works
1. Books authored or coauthored by Buchanan
Prices, Income, and Public Policy, with Clark Lee Allen and Marshall R. Colberg (1954).
The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, with Gordon Tullock (1962).
Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes, with Richard E. Wagner (1977).
What Should Economists Do? (1979).
The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution, with Geoffrey Brennan (1980).
The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy,with Geoffrey Brennan (1985).
Explorations into Constitutional Economics, compiled by Robert D. Tollison and Viktor J. Vanberg (1989).
Essays on the Political Economy (1989).
Better than Plowing: And Other Personal Essays (1992); reprinted as Economics from the Outside In: “Better than Plowing” and Beyond (2007).
Ethics and Economic Progress (1994).
Politics by Principle, Not Interest: Toward Nondiscriminatory Democracy, with Roger D. Congleton (1998).
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, 20 volumes (1999–2002).
Individualism and Political Disorder, with Yong J. Yoon (2015).
The Soul of Classical Political Economy: James M. Buchanan from the Archives, edited by Peter J. Boettke and Alain Marciano (2020).
2. Books coedited by Buchanan
Theory of Public Choice: Political Applications of Economics, with Robert D. Tollison (1972).
LSE Essays on Cost, with G.F. Thirlby (1973).
Toward a Theory of the Rent-Seeking Society, with Gordon Tullock and Robert D. Tollison (1980).
The Theory of Public Choice—II, with Robert D. Tollison (1984).
Deficits, with Charles K. Rowley and Robert D. Tollison (1987).
The Return to Increasing Returns, with Yong J. Yoon (1994).
Selected Works about Buchanan and Public Choice Theory
Baake, Pio and Rainald Borck, eds., Public Economics and Public Choice: Contributions in Honor of Charles B. Blankart (2007).
Boettke, Peter J. and Solomon Stein, eds., Buchanan’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of James M. Buchanan (2018).
Butler, Eammon, Public Choice—A Primer (2012).
Congleton, Roger D., Bernard Grofman, and Stefan Voigt, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Public Choice, two volumes (2019).
Holcombe, Randall G., Advanced Introduction to Public Choice (2016).
Kraan, Dirk-Jan, Budgetary Decisions: A Public Choice Approach(1996).
Lee, Dwight R., ed., Public Choice, Past and Present: The Legacy of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (2013).
Mackay, Robert J., James C. Miller, III, and Bruce Yandle, eds., Public Choice and Regulation: A View from inside the Federal Trade Commission (1987).
Mashaw, Jerry L., Greed, Chaos, and Governance: Using Public Choice to Improve Public Law (1997).
Meadowcroft, John, James M. Buchanan (2011).
Mueller, Dennis C., The Public Choice Approach to Politics (1993).
Mueller, Dennis C., ed., Perspectives on Public Choice: A Handbook (1996).
Self, Peter, Government by the Market?: The Politics of Public Choice (1993).
Shughart, William F., II, and Laura Razzolini, eds., The Elgar Companion to Public Choice (2001); second edition, with third coeditor, Michael Reksulak (2013).
Simmons, Randy T., Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, revised edition (2011).
Stringham, Edward, ed., Anarchy, State, and Public Choice (2005).
Sugden, Robert, The Political Economy of Public Choice: An Introduction to Welfare Economics (1981).
Tullock, Gordon, The Politics of Bureaucracy (1965).
Tullock, Gordon, The Economics of Special Privilege and Rent Seeking (1989).
Tullock, Gordon, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady, Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice (2002).
Wagner, Richard E., James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy: A Rational Reconstruction (2017).
Wagner, Richard E., James M. Buchanan: A Theorist of Political Economy and Social Philosophy (2018).