Dr. William Breit

E.M. Stevens Distinguished Professor of Economics, Trinity University

Buchanan-as-Artist: A Retrospective


"All art consists in bringing something into existence."

Aristotle, c. 340 B.C.

It is my pleasure to send greetings to James Buchanan on the occasion of this celebration. He has played so many important roles in my life (gracious friend, inspiring colleague and stimulating mentor) that my debt to him is greater than I could every repay. But I shall at least take this opportunity to engage in a little fun in the knowledge that for over thirty years he and I have been co-conspirators against those who take themselves too seriously. Moreover he will undoubtedly detect the strong undercurrent of seriousness in what follows. The economist-as-artist is an insight that we share. Jim Buchanan is an artist par excellence. Like other great artists who paint brilliant canvases, he has created a world and persuaded legions of followers that his perception of the world is correct. In accomplishing that feat he has indeed made their world what it is. Therefore to mark this milestone in his life it is fitting that James Buchanan, the preeminent representative of that school of art known as Public Choice-Constitutional Economics, be honored by a retrospective exhibit in the "Imaginary Museum of Modern Economics". The chronology in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit follows.



"Ars longa, vita brevis"

Hippocrates, c. 400 B.C.

This chronology compiles and consolidates information available in the James Buchanan literature, including most extensively his memoirs, Better Than Plowing, published in 1992 by the University of Chicago Press. It has benefited greatly from access to his vita on the internet as well as conversations with him over the many years of our acquaintance. It is highly selective in that it excludes mention of many works, although of interest in themselves, that do not, in the opinion of this curator, represent as significant breakthroughs in Buchananís thought as do those included in this retrospective.


Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the grandson of John P. Buchanan, erstwhile
Populist governor of Tennessee, and the son of Lila Scott and James McGill Buchanan, both of pure Scotch-Irish descent.
Grows up on the family farm in rural agricultural poverty. Since the farm had no clear-cut owner he early learns the importance of clearly defined property rights to provide the incentive for effective maintenance.
His mother and father assumed leadership roles in their local community. From his mother, who was a public school teacher, he receives home instruction that advances him two grades. She continues this help even through his college years.


Graduates first in his class with a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State College where he majors in mathematics, English literature and social science and matriculates at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Meets Professor Charles P. White at Tennessee whose scholarly work habits influence his own and who instills in him the belief that there is a moral element in academic pursuits.


Graduates with an M.A. in economics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Drafted into military service, undergoes officer training in New York and at Naval War College. Along with others, is subjected to overt discrimination based on favoritism for graduates of eastern establishment universities. This leads him to embrace a socialist position on social policy by virtue of which he becomes sympathetic to the possibility of politicized decision-making as the instrument by which social justice is achieved.


Stationed in Pearl Harbor on the operations staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz,
commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet and later stationed at Guam.
Awarded a Bronze Star for distinguished service.
Meets Ann Bakke who is working at Hickham Field, Oahu, with the Army Air Transport Command.
Buchanan develops a great respect for the military leaders for whom he works. Notwithstanding the urgings of important people who encourage him to stay in the military, he decides to pursue an academic career at war's end.


Marries Ann Bakke in San Francisco and reports for temporary duty in New Orleans.
Proceeds to Memphis, Tennessee where he is released from Navy.


Matriculates at the University of Chicago to work toward a Ph.D. in economics.
Enrolls in price theory class taught by Professor Frank H. Knight. Knight's teachings inspire the young economist to develop a skeptical attitude towards ideas and a new perspective for interpreting reality. The attitude: in the search for truth nothing and no one is sacred. The perspective: to see markets as coordinators of human interaction and a mechanism of exchange that increases utility. This leads the young Buchanan to reject the economizing-maximizing paradigm of economic orthodoxy as well as his earlier socialist views in which the political process overcomes "market failure." From this time onward his angle of vision sees market exchange as an institution than can best solve economic problems without coercion.


By chance, Buchanan discovers Knut Wicksell's 1896 unknown, un-translated doctoral dissertation on taxation in the University of Chicago's Harper Library.
Translates it from the German. The message: government should not be viewed as a benevolent despot. Political outcomes are the result of the interaction of persons in varying roles acting in their self-interest. The test of efficiency in the public sector can only be guaranteed by the rule of unanimity. Reforms in economic policy therefore require a change in the rules under which political agents act.
Receives Ph.D. in economics.


Associate Professor to Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.


Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.


Professor of Economics, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Fulbright Scholar in Italy where he reads widely and deeply in the works of the Italian masters of public finance. He discovers the Italian perspective on politics: "the state" is always viewed through the observed activities of its all-too-human agents.
Gets idea for his first singly authored book in a sudden epiphany while staying at a hotel in Rome. In his words: "The moment of enlightenment came while I was walking down the marbled stairs between floors on the occasion of mechanical failure of the lift. I treasure the memory of that moment because we rarely are able to locate the emergence of ideas so distinctly. I waxed so enthusiastic over the Ďdiscoveryí that I commenced writing what later became my book on stationery picked up from the hotel writing room."


Publishes Public Principles of Public Debt in which he rejects the Keynesian-inspired macroaggregative approach in favor of "methodological individualism" in which individually identified utility gains and losses is the method of analysis.
This paradigm ultimately is to become the behavioral model underlying all of his future landmark contributions to his new political economy.
Gordon Tullock comes to University of Virginia as a postdoctoral research fellow. Buchanan joins forces with Tullock and together they begin to produce the first systematic exposition of the way of thinking that later came to be called "public choice."


Publishes The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy co-authored with Gordon Tullock. This is his first exhibit in book form of what is now called "constitutional economics." Makes use of Buchananís Wicksellian emphasis on the rules within which political choices are made combined with the methodological-individualist model of analysis Buchanan pioneered in his public debt book. Tullock contributes his vision of the behavior of persons in bureaucratic roles. This work is quickly relegated to the status of a "classic." From the publication of this work the relevant issue in political economy becomes the comparison between the workings of the market, however imperfect, and the operation of its imperfect political alternative.


Elected President of the Southern Economic Association. His presidential address, "What Should Economists Do?" explicitly argues for the removal of the theory of resource allocation from the center stage of economic study to be replaced by the theory of market exchange in which individually identified gains and losses in utility in the exchange process are analyzed.


Serves as Professor of Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, California.


Accepts position as University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Named General Director of the Center for Study of Public Choice.
Publishes Cost and Choice: An Inquiry in Economic Theory, a work that attempts to clarify the concept of opportunity cost and again reduces economic analysis to individual choice settings and in doing so defines cost in utility rather than commodity dimensions.


Receives Outstanding Alumnus award from his undergraduate alma mater, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.


The University of Chicago Press publishes Buchananís most coherent single statement of his political economy: The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. This work was stimulated by Buchananís growing disillusionment with the democratic process. His sanguine view of that process derived from his belief that governing authorities, under constitutional restraint, will be responsive to the preferences of the citizens. However, explosive government spending on new programs unrelated to the will of the citizenry suggests to him an unleashed Leviathan, and the turbulent, violent years of the late 1960ís after the eruption of the Vietnam war pointed toward the emergence of anarchy in civil society. This new work presents the theories that enable him to predict the operating properties of both anarchy and Leviathan.


Elected as a Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Publishes (with Geoffrey Brennan), The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution. This work presents the formal analysis of the threat of the Leviathan state that was first raised in Limits of Liberty.


Receives Honorary Doctorate, (Dr.h.c.) University of Giessen, Germany


Joins the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, as General Director of the Center for Study of Public Choice.


Recipient of the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy.
Receives Honorary Doctorate (Dr. h.c.), University of Zurich.


Teams again with Geoffrey Brennan to produce The Reason of Rules - Constitutional Political Economy, a sequel to their earlier work on taxation.


Receives Nobel Prize in Economics.


Honoree, "James Buchanan Day," Rutherford County, Tennessee, City of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.


Recipient of numerous honorary doctorates.
Authors and/or edits over a dozen volumes of his work.


Retrospective at the "Imaginary Museum of Modern Economics", (in cyberspace), curated by William Breit, on the occasion of James Buchananís 80th birthday.