Editorial of The New York Sun | January 9, 2013
PUBLIC CHOICE: James Buchanan, who died today at the age of 93, gave us the tools to understand the expansion of government that is taking place in our time.
The death of James Buchanan takes from us the man who, more than any other, gave us the tools to understand what is happening to our country in the years of Obama. The professor at George Mason University was the leading progenitor of what is known as public choice theory, which holds, in our favorite summation of it, that government is the competitor of private business. It was a methodology for predicting the expansionist surge of our own government that has taken place during the Great Recession.
Buchanan’s work helps us understand what is happening in Washington today not as an altruistic phenomenon, though Buchanan would acknowledge that many of those in the government are animated by high ideals.* Rather Buchanan taught us to comprehend that, as the Swedish Academy put it in 1986 when it awarded Mr. Buchanan the Nobel Prize in Economics, “individuals who behave selfishly on markets can hardly behave wholly altruistically in political life.”
Sweden’s citation was quoted just the other day in this space by the editor of futureofcapitalism.com, Ira Stoll. “Governor Romney’s explanation of his election loss — that President Obama bought the election with ‘gifts’ such as health insurance coverage and student loan forgiveness — may be closer to the truth than a lot of people want to believe,” Mr. Stoll wrote. The columnist noted that Mr. Romney’s remarks were less than artfully articulated. But he wrote that Mr. Romney was “hardly the first to suggest that voters might be swayed by the government benefits they are receiving.”
Mr. Stoll quoted the summary of public choice theory in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, as pointing out that “people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and…as such, voters ‘vote their pocketbooks,’ supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off…Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.” It proved to be a powerful insight in the age of socialism.
We didn’t know Buchanan personally, though over the years he was generous in talking to our editorial writers and reporters. His life was a reminder of the impact an individual can have just by study and writing. Buchanan wrote more than 30 books, according to the total cited by the New York Times in a fine obituary of a scholar who stood for everything the Times seems to oppose. The question Buchanan brought into focus for us was summarized by Amity Shlaes in a column issued in the closing year of the 20th century, in which she identified Buchanan as the “reigning economic philosopher of our era.”
At the time, Miss Shlaes put the question Buchanan posed as “why, in 1999, bereft of any serious reason to maintain high taxes — we have, after all, no war, no deficit, and a president who has declared the era of big government to be over — many lawmakers, particularly Democrats, still insist on spending first and cutting later.” It turned out to be a question would come every more sharply into focus for the next decade and a half. It has rarely been in sharper relief than it is now, when America teeters on the edge of its fiscal cliff.
It happens that in March the Public Choice Society, which Buchanan founded with Gordon Tullock, will gather for its 50th anniversary meeting. A call for papers has been issued, according to the society’s Web site, and the event will convene at New Orleans. It will be an illuminating event for young journalists who want to avoid the Hunger Games that the next generation faces because of the seemingly inexorable expansion of government and consequent narrowing of human freedom. If there is a way forward it will be illuminated in large part by those working in the field of economics that James Buchanan did so much to establish.
* As, a reader has pointed out to us subsequent to the original publication of this editorial, are many in private life.