Charles J. Goetz

James McGill Buchanan is a classic "original thinker" type. One of the things that sets original thinker geniuses apart from those of us in the common herd is that their minds often work in quirky, almost spooky intuitive ways.

My first glimpse at the inexplicably intuitive nature of original insight came when, as a teenager, I read a biography of the legendary physicist Isaac Newton. The book recounted how Newton had, in a matter of only a few days, arrived at the correct answer to a complex scientific problem set in the form of a "puzzle" by one of his acquaintances. But, although Newton knew the correct answer almost immediately, it then took him many months to prove the correctness of the answer. I remember being flabbergasted at how one could intuit an answer without immediately being able to adduce the chain of reasoning that led to the answer. It was as though someone could look at a page containing a thousand digits of numbers and, after brief meditation, confidently announce the correct square root. How could this be possible?

I was also intrigued by the "puzzle" method of investigation. How did one learn by contemplating puzzles for which there was not necessarily any derivable answer at all?

Only Jim Buchanan himself could attest authoritatively to the importance of intuition as the motive force in many of his great and insightful contributions to the field of economics. On the puzzle-making score, however, the evidence is clear, as many of his former graduate students can confirm. I remember the exams after which graduate students would ask in all seriousness "Was there an answer to question five?" knowing full well that there often wasn’t. The test was of how one could grapple with the unknown.

Though lacking direct evidence, I am pretty confident that Buchanan was as full of scientific intuition as anyone I’ve ever known. And, I remember Jim telling me that "The trick is to look at a familiar question from an angle a hundred yards off from the usual perspective." Indeed, I can tie together intuition and puzzle-making with a brief anecdote that is amusing, instructive and quintessentially Buchanan.

About a year after I received my doctorate, I stopped by to visit Jim in his basement office in Rouss Hall at the University of Virginia, the headquarters of the Thomas Jefferson Center. I had in hand the manuscript of a just-completed paper in which I disproved a traditional rule of public finance: that the excess burden of a tax is minimized by taxing the good with the most inelastic demand curve. The paper was quite short and Jim read it immediately, growing more and more visibly excited as he continued.

Finally, he jumped up and headed for one of his filing cabinets, exclaiming "I knew it! I just knew that there was something wrong with that rule." In a minute, he brandished an old final exam in graduate public finance and handed it to me.

"Look, I asked that question on the final for Toby Davis’ group, asked them to disprove the excess burden rule."

"But," he added wistfully, "nobody got it right."