Why James Buchanan Deserved His Nobel

Sometimes offhand comments are the most revealing of all about someone’s character. Many Nobel laureates are defined by their vanity at least as much as their accomplishments. Not Buchanan. In an aside near the end of an autobiographical essay — written, at least in part, so he could shoo away pesky journalists asking about his life story, telling them to read this instead — he remarks that he doesn’t even feel like a part of the discipline whose highest honor he had recently won:

I am not, and never have been, an economist in an narrowly defined meaning. My interests in understanding how the economic interaction process works have always been instrumental to the more inclusive purpose of understanding how we can learn to live one with another without engaging in Hobbesian war and without subjecting ourselves to the dictates of the state. The “wealth of nations,” as such, has never commanded my attention save as a valued by-product of an effectively free society.

-James Buchanan, Better than Plowing and Other Personal Essays, p. 17

Right in line with the subtitle of Buchanan’s favorite book of his, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. The Buchananite approach is so much more relevant to the real world than the discipline’s conventional approach of inapplicable, if pretty, mathematical gymnastics.


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