James McGill Buchanan Biography Theory

Individuals, Contracts and Constitutions: the Political Economy of James McGill Buchanan

James Buchanan Biography, Works Of James Buchanan

James Buchanan began his distinguished academic career in 1948 at the University of Tennessee. At the time of writing he is General Director of the influential Center for Study of Public Choice at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a post he has held since 1969. He has taught at many seats of learning in both the US and Europe including UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, LSE and Cambridge. During his career Professor Buchanan has picked up numerous awards and honours, served on very many important boards and undertaken a sizeable amount of consultancy work. Within this packed working life he has also managed to produce an almost frighteningly large volume of publications, only a fraction of which are referred to here.

Like many important economists of our time, Buchanan studied at the University of Chicago, where he was influenced by the legendary Frank H. Knight. He also lists Knut Wicksell's work on public finance (which he translated) and the importance Wicksell placed on unanimity among his influences. But the factor that gives Buchanan's work its distinctive flavour is his familiarity with the Italian School of Public Finance. In 1955/6 Buchanan was Fulbright Research Scholar in Italy where he was exposed to a perspective entirely different to that which informs the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The most significant single influence of his Italian experience was the contrast between our essentially pluralist view of the state and the Italian denial of the democratic process and insistence that decisions for the collectivity are always made by a small group (Buchanan, 1960).

Buchanan's major contribution to economics has been in the mistakenly neglected realm of Public Choice or the Economics of Politics. He was driven to this field because of his dissatisfaction with public finance theory (Buchanan, 1949). His approach to the subject has been to integrate, (i) the structure of taxes, (ii) the various activities the taxes finance, and (iii) the political process within which decisions on what goods are provided collectively, and how output and costs are shared (Buchanan, 1966). This leads quite naturally to the study of individuals' responses to different decision rules and collective institutions, i.e. Public Choice. Recently the literature on Public Choice has blossomed and many approaches, ranging from the narrowly empirical to exercises in abstract logic, have gained a wide audience and made a significant impact on our interpretation of government and the political process.

Buchanan has been the dominant figure in these developments. Eschewing empty theorising he has sought to construct and indicate forms of political order that channel individuals' self-interested behaviour towards the common good. Here there is a clear affinity between Buchanan's analysis and Adam Smith's vigorous attack on the straitjacket of mercantilism. In fact, Buchanan acknowledges his rediscovery of the conventional wisdom of the classical political economists. His starting point is a deep mistrust of the government process and its predilection to generate an ever increasing set of constraints on individual actions. His conclusion is to point to the urgent necessity for constitutional constraints on government and its multifarious agencies.