Reminiscences of Jim Buchanan


Jose Casas Pardo


There are few people whose ideas can change the intellectual course of other people. Jim Buchanan is certainly one of them, and I am one of those people whose intellectual view of the social, political and economic order has decisively been influenced and changed by Jim's ideas.

I remember very clearly the day when I first came in contact with Jim Buchanan’s ideas and work. It was on a day of August 1975 while I was spending a month of semi-holidays semi-work at Capileira, the uppermost highly located village in Sierra Nevada, Granada, Spain. Among the books and journals I had packed up into my car, it happened to be the issue of the AER Papers and Proceedings for May 1975. In this issue, which as usual carried the papers presented at the previous year (December (1974) conference of the AEA, by chance I came across a short paper by Buchanan entitled "A Contractarian Paradigm for Applying Economic Theory". Trained as I had been in Neoclassical and Keynesian Economics at the London School of Economics, up to then, not only had I not read any of Buchanan’s works, but I had not even heard about him. His name was totally unknown to me.

Reading his above mentioned paper was for me literally an exhilarating intellectual experience. In particular it stroke me his assertion that "The inference must be, however, that there exist no one person, no single chooser, who maximizes for the economy, for the polity. To impose a maximizing construction on the models that are designed to be helpful in policy is to ensure sterility in results... My strictures are directed exclusively at the extension of this basic maximizing paradigm to social organization where it does not belong. This is the bridge which economists have crossed, and which has created major intellectual confusion.’ That which emerges from the trading or exchange process, conceived in its narrowest or its broadest terms, is not a solution to a maximizing problem despite the presence of scarce resources and the conflict among ends’. ‘What comes out of it’ is ‘what comes out of it’ and that is it".

This short article and particularly the above quoted paragraph, which curiously enough has been neglected, changed my view of Economics, of politics, of the role of the economists, of economic policy and of the social order, and along with it my intellectual and professional interests. Ever since I have been a fullhearted pupil of Jim Buchanan and ever since I have been working on Public Choice and Constitutional Economics, as their view, approach and method of analysis seem to me to be not only much more in accordance with reality but also that they open up an enormous field of research both for advancing knowledge of the social phenomena and also for deriving normative ideas for improving the social, political and economic order. In his article "Rationality and Economic Theory", Sen acknowledges the importance of Buchanan’s criticisms to the idea of social rationality and of a social function, with all their implications for all collective decisions.

I first met Jim at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Madrid in 1979. I attended the meeting with the only purpose of making acquaintance with Jim. Antonio Martin introduced me to him. Previously Antonio had told me that Jim looked like Clark Gable. Immediately after being introduced to him, I asked Jim to participate jointly with me in submitting to the Joint Spanish-American Committee for Educational and Cultural Affairs a research project which aim was to analyze the new 1978 Spanish Constitution in the light of Constitutional Political Economy. It was no trivial topic, since that one had been the latest constitution drafted in the world and it was a peculiar mixture of liberal and socialistic principles. Jim was very surprised at my daring suggestion, although he did not show it. He looked at me from top to bottom and said to me that he had work scheduled for the following five years. I insisted on my proposal in a very determined way. Finally he asked me to bring him next day my curriculum vitae. I did so and, after looking at it carefully, he told me to go to Blacksburg to further discuss my proposal.

In December 1979 I arrived in Blacksburg where I met Betty Tillman, Gordon Tullock, Geoff Brennan and many others who, together with Jim, were wonderfully hospitable to me. The day after I arrived I met Jim at his office located in the beautiful little building the Center had at VPISU. The first thing I did was to tell him that if only for that short article (Applying...) he deserved the Nobel Price. I think he was half surprised half amused, as he knew I was being genuinely sincere. I again put forward to him my Madrid’s proposal. He told me that he had some qualms about it and that after returning from a tour of lectures he would give me an answer. He went away for a few days, and upon his return he told me to go ahead with it. We drafted the outline of the project and I submitted it to the Committee which approved it. For various reasons no publication came out of it. I must say that when Jim and I went to the Committee’s office in Madrid in 1980, I boasted to the director that sooner or later Jim would get the Nobel Prize in Economics.

That was the beginning of a personal and intellectual relationship that has now lasted for 20 years. I keep in my mind many memorable moments I shared with him, both in the personal and the intellectual fields. I will only mention here the most relevant ones. In 1980 I was asked by a Spanish institution to edit a book of readings on Public Choice with a long introductory study by me. I did it and I asked Jim to write a preface for the book. He wrote a short and insightful piece comparing Wicksell’s and Schumpeters’s idea of democracy. I gave the book the title "An Economic Analysis of Politics". It was a success, partly due to Jim’s little known lecture "Politics without Romance: a Sketch of Positive Public Choice Theory and its Normative Implications", which recently has been included in a book of readings entitled "Classics on Democracy" edited by a reputed Spanish professor of Political Science.

Upon being awarded the Nobel Prize, I invited him to come to Valencia. He accepted the invitation taking the opportunity that he, Ann and Betty were coming to Madrid invited by a Spanish institution. In that way, he told me, he would spare the University of Valencia the expenses of their trip from the USA to Madrid. Before his arrival I had sponsored that the University of Valencia (an old institution which was founded in 1499) would award him the Doctor Honoris Causa degree. It was duly approved by the various governing bodies of the University and the ceremony was scheduled for December 4, 1987. The ceremony (which dates back to the XVIth century) was most solemn, formal and beautiful. As his sponsor (we call it in Spain godfather) I pronounced his Laudatio Academica and Jim delivered a Lectio on the topic "The State" as a new doctor of the University of Valencia. As far as I know, Jim, Ann and Betty thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony. Jim received from the Rector a beautiful gown, a cap, a ring, a pair of white gloves and the so called "the book of science", which in fact were the complete works of Ortega y Gaset (in Spanish). I know from some common friends that Jim was very proud of those regalia, which I believe are now on display at the Buchanan House. After the ceremony, several academic events took place and in the evening the President of the Autonomous Government of Valencia offered us a dinner at the Presidential Palace.

Jim had previously told me he wanted to visit Granada. I was only too happy to take them there as it is my hometown. I offered them the choice of going there either by plane or by car. The three of them voted unanimously for going by car, as I had described to them the landscape and the towns we would go through during the drive. We set off on December 6. We visited Alicante, Elche, Murcia and Guadix (where we stopped briefly to greet my father), and arrived in Granada in the evening. I got the impression that Jim, coming from the countryside as he did, enjoyed very much seeing the fields, the houses of the farmers, the crops, etc., and also eating the "tapas" (a typically Spanish light dish of a great variety that you get at the bars). The visit of Granada was, I think, memorable for the three of them. Besides visiting the many beautiful monuments of the town, we had the good luck of having the Alhambra shown to us alone in the night and illuminated; it was a dream. Unfortunately while visiting the Alhambra during the day and evening, Ann caught a cough. From Granada we went on to Cordoba (where we visited the beautiful Mosque) and Sevilla. In this town the President of the Autonomous Government of Andalucia received us and offered us a lunch. Here I must record that in order to visit Granada and to keep the timetable he and I had outlined in advance of his trip, Jim refused to go to Madrid for an audience with the King of Spain arranged by the people of the institution which had originally brought him to Madrid and who wanted to get some profits out of their money. This is something typical of Jim. As I told him at that stage of his life, one king more or less did not matter very much. I know that something similar he did to the King of Sweden during the various events which took place at the Nobel Prize ceremony.

The next important recollection of Jim I have was his coming again to Valencia in 1994. I was organizing the Annual Meeting of the European Public Choice Society. I asked him to be my main plenary speaker. Generously enough he accepted my invitation and so he greatly contributed to the high scholarly standard the Meeting achieved. Later on, together with F. Schneider, I edited a volume under the title "Current Issues in Public Choice". Jim’s paper (which typically of him, he called "Foundational Concerns. A Criticism of Public Choice) was the first one of the volume under the heading "Foundations of Public Choice Theory".

Finally, I want to record the conversation I had with Jim in Madrid in October 1996. After several hours of talking about everything under the sun, at the moment of saying goodbye he told me that he felt very pessimistic about how democracy was working in the Western countries. It impressed me, as such view was held by a person who had dedicated his life to understanding the shortcomings of democracy and to formulating normative proposals to solve them. I told him that so did I feel, and that I was sure many people felt the same way. I suggested him to lead a grand research project to analyze in depth the relationships between on the one hand democracy and on the other such concepts as political freedom, economic freedom, economic efficiency, economic justice, social justice, equity, equality, ethics, solidarity and any other relevant ones. Obviously the last word on the topic would not come out of it, but the knowledge on such relationships would be pushed a little further. Besides its scientific interest, it would have the advantage that, by clarifying somewhat more the relationships between those concepts, it would reduce the room for maneuvre of demagogic politicians who were deceiving the ordinary people and voters by exploiting their ignorance (since the more we know scientifically speaking about a social phenomenon, the less room there is for its ideological interpretation) and such a project would be a crowding work for his life long intellectual achievements. Also he was the only person able both to enroll in it the best specialists on the topic people in the world, and to raise the money for carrying it out. He was receptive to the idea and we talked again about how to implement it in detail at a meeting we had in Elche, Spain, in 1997. However, I think that the publication of his complete works has absorbed all his interests and energies in the last two years and so far nothing has come out of it.

I must end these reminiscenses of Jim by saying that what has most attracted and influenced me of his works and ideas is what I have always understood as an optimistic view of the collective relationships among free people. By contrast to Arrow’s pessimism, Jim believes that individuals can improve their wellbeing through voluntary exchanges, provided the appropriate rules (constitutions) are agreed upon. His contractarian - constitutional approach offers great possibilities of increasing voluntary exchanges among individuals in the political sphere and we can improve the working of democracy and of all collective institutions. He has greatly contributed to resolve what he considers to be the continuing question of social order: "How can we live together in peace, prosperity and harmony, while retaining our liberties as autonomous individuals who can, and must, create our own values?" His contribution to understanding this grand question can be compared to that of Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Adam Smith, and his believe in democracy is uncompromising. I consider myself to be very lucky by having got to know his works and ideas, and by being his friend.