BUCHANANíS CONTRIBUTIONS: AN ITALIAN VIEWPOINT
Reading his early works, it appears like he had already in mind most of the developments of his (and his joint authorsí) works that in fact came out later on (and in some cases much later).
An explanation of this very impressive aspect of Buchananís works may be that he had been able to find right at the beginning of his career the two pillars of his scientific approach: a) the relevance of the political element in public policy issues; b) the exchange paradigm, in a contractarian framework.
As to the political element, Buchanan mentioned on many occasions that the idea of its relevance came to him through the Italian public finance tradition. This influence was strong to convince him to abandon, as he said, "the disciplinary constraints" and to extend the application of economics to the political and institutional framework.
The exchange paradigm, on the other hand, which was an idea to be found also in the Italian works on public finance, came to Buchanan through Wicksellís book on public finance, whose casual "discovery" was the starting point of the entire process that led Buchanan into this scientific area. The Wicksellian influence was not limited to pointing out the relevance of the exchange paradigm, but also it emphasized the importance of voting rules. I must add that Wicksellís rules were not exactly "constitutional", though they have been influential on the design of Buchananís constitutional approach.
The Italians had not paid much attention to the voting rules. They followed (at least, if I am not wrong in my interpretation) some early "median voter" hypothesis. Pantaleoni, in his celebrated essay of 1883 on public expenditue, considered decisive for budget approval the intelligenza media del Parlamento", where media can be interpreted as "median" or also "average". Other Italian authors, like De Viti de Marco, refer more clearly to median preferences.
It may be interesting to add that both these elements (the political element and the exchange paradigm with voting rules) had not received much attention in Europe, at least at the time when Buchanan rediscovered them.
The central message of the book, i.e. that future generations will bear the burden of public debt, explains Buchananís opposition to public indebtedness, if one takes account of his anti-majoritarian (pro-unanimity) view. In fact, public debt decisions are majoritarian, if Buchananís message is accepted, because: first, majority rule is the voting rule in all Parliaments; second (and most important), the final payers, the future generations, do not take part in the decision, so that, even in case of approval by unanimity, a public debt decision would be approved in the best situation by a majority (and in the worst by a minority).
From these considerations (explicit or implicit in Public Principles of Public Debt) the moral disapproval by Buchanan of public debt also emerged, which furthermore stimulated Buchananís very original approach to Ethics.
Buchananís proposals for constitutional rules to limit the discretionary power of politicians, a subject which has attracted also recently so much attention in policy debates in the United States and in other democracies, derive in my view from this mix of economic, legal and ethical principles which is at the basis of Buchananís thinking.
The title of the first volume of Buchananís Collected Works, just published by Liberty Fund (the most appropriate publisher for these works), "The Logical Foundations of Liberty", perfectly reflects the essence of Buchananís contributions.
The Collected Works will include in 20 volumes Buchananís works produced in fifty years, from his first article published in 1949, until 1998. Since Jim Buchananís scientific production continues at normal speed, we can say that those 20 volumes will collect the first fifty years of the scientific production of an Author who will certainly provide us in the years to come with many other important ideas.
When Buchanan first came to Italy, in 1955, to spend a year as Fullbright fellow, the country was recovering from the war. Damages had been not only material, but also moral. The tragedy of the war had in fact demolished the faith of the Italians in their own value. The economists, under the influence of the Keynesian message, were in the process to convert entirely to macroeconomics, abandoning the Italian tradition, essentially microeconomic.
Public finance scientists, in particular, felt that the theories by Pantaleoni, De Viti de Marco and Mazzola (only to quote the most well known authors) had no role to play in modern fiscal debate.
The attention given to the Italian tradition by a young, but already eminent economist as Jim Buchanan, opened the Italian economists to a new field of research, based on the previous Italian studies. Though it would certainly be inaccurate to say that Public Choice acquired a large popularity in a country where the favor for government intervention has been (and still remains) very high, there is no doubt that Buchanan's influence changed the picture of the Italian scientific environment.
Something must be said, obviously, also of the attention paid to the Italian public finance by Richard Musgrave and by Paul Samuelson. However, their interest was purely historic, since their political economy was very far from that of Buchanan and of the Italians, based as it was on the idea of benevolent government.
The "government failure" approach, introduced by Buchanan and Tullock in 1962, in the Calculus of Consent, is acquiring larger acceptance now in Italy, in particular after the failure of the socialist economies.
Finally, on a more personal basis, I must mention that in 1983 I have been able to found, with the encouragement and assistance of Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice, a journal whose aim is to connect the Italian tradition in public finance with the new Public Choice theories. This also is part of the Buchanan's contribution to the Italian economic studies.