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On James Buchanan, Kenneth Elzinga, and Antitrust

Here’s a letter to The American Prospect. (The appalling sloppiness and tendentiousness of the swarms of ‘thinkers’ struggling today to discredit the work of serious scholars such as the late Jim Buchanan would be laughable were it not so infuriating.)


Maureen Tkackik’s and Claire Kelloway’s “The No Spin-Off Zone” is a Niagara of economic nonsense (October 11) – one, frankly, not worth taking the time necessary to refute each of its countless errors. Yet one of the authors’ claims alone conveniently reveals their unworthiness to be taken seriously. The claim is this: “In the 1970s, right-wing economists like Kenneth Elzinga, a protégé of the late libertarian deep-state deity James Buchanan, zeroed in on the sky-high failure rate of divestitures to undermine anti-merger legislation and antitrust itself.”


Forget that it’s impossible in this context to know what “deep-state deity” means given that Buchanan vigorously opposed expansive and unaccountable bureaucracies. Instead, note that Ken Elzinga, if he is a protégé of anyone, it is of his Michigan State University doctoral advisor Walter Adams, who was a proponent of active antitrust intervention. It’s true that Elzinga grew far more skeptical than was Adams of the merits of antitrust, but this skepticism certainly did not come from Buchanan. The reason is that Buchanan, unlike most market-oriented economists (including Elzinga), was for all of his career favorably disposed toward antitrust, believing it to be necessary to prevent private firms from amassing and abusing monopoly power.

I believe that on this matter Buchanan erred. But whether Buchanan was right or wrong about antitrust, Tkackik and Kelloway reveal the untrustworthiness of their analysis by suggesting that he was the source of Ken Elzinga’s antitrust skepticism.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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