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Geoff Brennan, and Others, On James M. Buchanan

David Hart just reminded me that, soon after Jim Buchanan died in January of 2013, Liberty Fund’s on-line “Liberty Matters” series for March 2013 was devoted to the life’s work of Buchanan.  I’m surprised and chagrined that I did not link to this symposium when it first went on-line.

The lead essay in this symposium is written by Buchanan’s frequent co-author Geoff Brennan.  Other contributors to this on-line symposium are Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Loren Lomasky, Ed Stringham, and Viktor Varberg.  The whole thing is worth reading.  (Nancy MacLean – who recently wrote what is alleged to be an “intellectual biography” of Buchanan – doesn’t cite this symposium in her book and, judging from her book’s contents, apparently did not read what these collaborators and students of Buchanan said about him.  Too bad, for had she read this symposium she would have encountered several reasons to revise – and in many cases to reverse – her portrayal of Buchanan.)  Here’s a slice from Geoff’s excellent lead essay:

Of course, he saw markets as the primary institution for the mobilization of exchange possibilities. But his version of the “economic analysis of the study of political processes” (or “Public Choice theory,” as it came to be called) was distinctive in Public Choice circles for its emphasis on “politics as exchange” – a phrase he repeated many times. (As an aside, we should note that for many libertarians/classical liberals it might be more natural to think in terms of politics as coercion – and though Buchanan certainly did not deny the possibility of coercion in politics, he equally certainly denied that all government action is intrinsically coercive.) He believed that exchange via political action is possible and that the role of the economist is to uncover those exchange possibilities. In this, he followed Knut Wicksell (unquestionably one of Buchanan’s intellectual heroes) and Wicksell’s other interpreter, Erik Lindahl – and in this sense was a participant along with Musgrave and Samuelson in the analysis of public goods and associated market failure that dominated the welfare economics/public economics of the 1950s and early 1960s.

That is, Buchanan fully accepted the public-goods argument that markets sometimes fail to exploit all the mutual benefits that are on offer in human society. And he also accepted the (Wicksellian) proposition that collective action could in principle appropriate such “gains from exchange” in public-goods supply. In other words, he thought that there is (in principle) a role for the “productive state” as well as the “protective state” – to use a distinction he developed explicitly in the Limits of Liberty (1975).