A number of people have written tributes to James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize winning economist largely responsible, with his colleague Gordon Tullock, for public choice theory, the application of economics to politics. As it happens, I owe two debts to him, and it seems an appropriate occasion to acknowledge them.
One debt is for the role he played in my becoming an economist. After I got a doctorate in physics and spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow, I decided to switch fields. Julius Margolis, who ran the Fels Institute of Government at Penn and had seen some of my work, invited me to come there. I spent two years as a post-doc at Penn, a third as a lecturer; during that time I wrote my first econ journal article, an economic theory of the size and shape of nations published in the JPE.
At some point I met Jim and discovered that we had somewhat similar ideas about applying economics to political behavior, the subject of my article and large volumes of his work. He invited me to come to VPI as an assistant professor of economics. During the next four years, I suspect as a result of his deliberate policy, I taught a wide range of courses, more or less the whole curriculum. Teaching things is a good way of learning them. That, a large chunk of my shift into economics, is one debt.
The other started even earlier. My first book, The Machinery of Freedom
, received only one good review—where I define a good review not as a friendly one but as a review which makes the author think. Jim wrote it. A significant part of what will go into the third edition of that book is my response to a problem he pointed out with my exposition and analysis of a system of privately produced law. Readers who do not feel like waiting for the third edition can find the problem, and the response, in several of my webbed talks
, including one
I gave last year at Buchanan house at George Mason University.
Jim, by then, had retired, so was not at GMU to hear the talk. I planned at some point to send him a link to the recording, or somewhere else where I responded. But I never got around to it.
And now I can't.