James M. Buchanan — 1919-2013

Thom Lambert —  9 January 2013

Yet another loss of a giant in the world of law and economics.  On December 19, it was Robert Bork.  Today, we lost economist James M. Buchanan, Nobel laureate, George Mason professor, and one of the fathers of Public Choice economics.  Regular readers of TOTM will know that several of us–including yours truly–have been heavily influenced by the insights of Public Choice (see, e.g., here and here).

I was alerted to Buchanan’s passing by my friend and collaborator, Virginia Law’s Charles Goetz, co-author of the Goetz & McChesney (now Goetz, McChesney & Lambert) antitrust casebook.  I asked Charlie if he’d pen a few words in honor of Buchanan, his dissertation director and mentor, and he heartily agreed to do so.  Here they are:

Nobel Laureate James McGill Buchanan has passed away and one less giant now walks the pathways of Economics, pathways that he extended and widened.  Jim was my dissertation director, my mentor, my sometime colleague and coauthor—and my friend. There is an old compliment that denotes a man “a gentleman and a scholar.”  Jim was certainly both, to the quintessential degree.

I often reflect on how fortunate I’ve been with many things, but certainly among the luckiest of things was to be an Economics graduate student at the University of Virginia in the early 1960’s.  It was a golden time when Jim and a handful of others were midwifing the birth of what came to be known as Public Choice economics.  I got to watch and listen as great men did great things.

I remember what an eye-opening experience it was for me to take Buchanan’s year-long course in Public Finance.  He was an incredibly effective teacher.  He was far from a classroom showman, but had the genius of asking such devilishly interesting and revelatory questions.  I have acknowledged publicly on a number of occasions that, if he could charge me for the intellectual value-added that he created in me, he would be owed a very large sum indeed.  But I am profoundly in his debt, even if not in a pecuniary sense.

In the days and weeks to come, others will write many highly complimentary things about James M. Buchanan as a scholar. Deservedly so.  I would have little new to add to that outpouring.  Still, there is a revealing anecdote about Jim as a man that can come only from me, the sole witness and participant.

Buchanan generally had a very formal relationship with students and I understandably regarded him with awe and no little bit of fear.  But, one day, he gave me a great big smile and told me a story that made me appreciate, for the first time, the lurking, devilish sense of humor that went with this proper Tennessee Gentleman.

“Goetz,” he said, “you’re a New Yorker, aren’t you?  But, . . . you’re a pretty good fellow anyway.”

“I often dislike New Yorkers because they act like obnoxious know-it-alls.  There was a New Yorker like that in my class at Navy Officer Candidate school during World War II.  This fellow didn’t have much use for a simple Tennessee boy like me and tried to lord it over us country boys.  But I fixed him.”

“At the end of our OCS course, the Navy gave us a battery of tests that it used in allocating new ensigns to their first duty assignment.  I started a rumor that this NY fellow had come out second in the whole class.  At first, he denied it since, of course, he had no basis to believe it.  Gradually, though, he began to accept congratulations and to puff up more and more about the compliments.”

“Then I started the second rumor, about our further training to battle the Japanese: the first three men in the class were being sent to One-man Submarine School.”

Somehow, I saw Jim with different eyes after that story.  Maybe you will as well.

Requiescat in pace, J. M. Buchanan, the little-known joker and man of honed wit, wit in more ways than the scholarly.  In the midst of our sadness, maybe a chuckle is good medicine.

Well-said, Charlie.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.