Buchanan and Wiseman
Department of Economics
University of Southampton
Southampton SO17 1PN
(Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
While visiting the Center for Study of Public Choice in April 1994 I was allowed to attend, as an observer, sessions of a seminar constructed as a meeting of co-authors of James Buchanan. At the end of one session, Jim was asked to reflect on the role of co-authorship. In responding, Jim identified a number of patterns of co-authorship - ranging from long-running collaboration to a one-off paper in one dimension; and from genuine joint-production in which each author contributes to and learns from the partnership, to a more asymmetric senior/junior structure in another dimension. In an essay that is intended for distribution primarily from a web site, it seems appropriate to identify a further form of co-authorship, and label it 'virtual co-authorship'.
'Virtual co-authors' are individuals who collaborate and engage in almost all of the elements of joint production, but do not actually write or publish together. I identify Jim Buchanan and Jack Wiseman as a case of long-term 'virtual co-authors'. The authorial conjunction 'Buchanan and Wiseman' appears in no real bibliography (which, in part, explains why I have chosen it as my title) and this might seem surprising given their friendship over more than thirty years and the similarity of their interests and vision. My motivation in writing this brief piece is to explore this particular instance of virtual co-authorship a little and, by so doing, to pay my respects to both Jim Buchanan and Jack Wiseman on the occasion of Jim's 80th birthday - particularly since 1999 would also have seen Jack's 80th birthday.
Buchanan and Wiseman first met at the LSE in 19601. By that time each had already established the broad themes of his academic concerns. On Buchanan's side most of the work - with Gordon Tullock - on The Calculus of Consent (1962) was already complete; and the same is true on Wiseman's side for the work - with Alan Peacock - on The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom (1961). Jack Wiseman was already familiar with much of Jim Buchanan's earlier work - particularly Public Principles of Public Debt (1958). Their common interests ranged across almost the whole of public finance, economic policy, and economic method - and so it was not surprising that they discussed these interests together. But the list of their common interests was not, in itself, the source of their mutual recognition as potential collaborators. The real key lies in the similarity of their visions. Each had, in their earlier work, and from quite separate influences2, adopted a perspective that questioned the then mainstream approach to questions of economic policy. The precise details of their positions and the scope of their vision differed, but the fundamental emphasis on individual choice and exchange; on the proper interpretation of the idea of opportunity cost; on the role of uncertainty; and on the logical and practical defects of any system of collective planning, were clear enough. Jack Wiseman placed special emphasis on uncertainty as unknowability - itself a variation on the theme of Frank Knight, and therefore easily recognised and understood by Jim Buchanan - and on the subjective nature of all real decision making. Jim Buchanan's emphasis was by that time already on the role of unanimity in collective decision making and as a normative benchmark, and on the idea of political and institutional failure - the foundational shift from public finance to the public choice approach.
The bond created by their common substantive interests, together with their shared perspective was further strengthened by the simple but important fact that they liked each other. Although some of their non-academic interests were specific to their cultures - Jack's interest in cricket made as little sense to Jim as did Jim's liking for baseball to Jack - they clearly enjoyed the fact that their plain-speaking (to put it mildly), no-nonsense approach marked them out in the academic world of the early 1960s. To put the matter briefly, they took their intellectual interests seriously, but did not take academic manners too seriously. The stage was set for a long professional and personal relationship. Over the next thirty years, until Jack Wiseman's death in January 1991, they met frequently. Jack was a regular visitor to the Center for Study of Public Choice, and they would also meet during Jim's many visits to Europe - perhaps in the context of the Institute of Economic Affairs, or the International Institute of Public Finance.
All of the above I understand from my own conversations with Jack and with Jim, and from their autobiographical writings. But I would like to add something from more direct, personal observation. I first met Jack Wiseman when I went to the University of York as a beginning graduate student in October 1973. After a year he became my thesis supervisor, and I worked within his Institute for Social and Economic Research for two more years before moving on to a lectureship. I knew some of Jim Buchanan's work when I arrived in York, but had no real understanding of the Buchanan enterprise as a whole. It was through Jack that I - and a number of others - were introduced to Jim both intellectually and personally. In a sense, Wiseman was the lens through which I saw Buchanan's work. I now understand that the lens distorted some aspects while clarifying others (it was certainly rose-tinted with friendship) but without the lens, I might never have developed independent vision.
In the middle years of his career, Jack was professionally concerned with a variety of more applied topics, not unconnected to the need to finance his Institute. He wrote little that was aimed at developing his general approach, or connecting it to the then burgeoning Buchanan project. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) this lack of relevant written output, he would talk. And anyone who ever met Jack will agree that he could, in his own phrase, 'talk the hind leg off a donkey'. And his talking would always revert to his basic perspective, its implications and its relationship to the ideas of public choice theory. By this means he established a sort of personal oral tradition that influenced many who passed through York - whether in his Institute, the Department of Economics or the Department of Politics; and whether as students or as faculty members. At that time, Jack Wiseman and his group at York were probably the only significant group in the UK to recognise the significance of the public choice approach, and foster an interest in that approach. In this way Jack was much more influential as an advocate and supporter of public choice theory than one could guess from the purely written record - and certainly more important than is commonly realised in the still predominantly American circles of public choice theory itself. Among the then-young people who were at York in the short time that I was there one might list Bob Sugden, Albert Weale and David Austen-Smith and this listing could be expanded greatly by moving through the years. Another measure of Jack's influence over the development of a specifically British constituency for public choice theory can be found by reading the British text Public Finance and Public Choice by John Cullis and Philip Jones (John Cullis was himself at York rather later than me) which cites Jack Wiseman repeatedly and in a wide variety of contexts: compare this with any American text.
Once I had moved beyond my DPhil and had the possibility of taking some sabbatical leave, Jack suggested that I might spend it at Center for Study of Public Choice - still at that time located at VPI in Blacksburg - and so I finally met Jim Buchanan for the first time in any meaningful way in 1982. In many ways, the contrasts between Jim and Jack were more immediately obvious to me than the similarities - since I already expected and to at least some extent understood the nature of their intellectual similarity. To someone used to Jack, Jim initially seemed rather too quiet. I attended several seminars, on topics directly related to Jim's work, at which he spoke little and then only in response to more or less direct questions. However, over the next few days - in quiet conversations in the hall, or by exchange of notes - he would make relevant comments and points until all outstanding issues were resolved to his satisfaction. The mode of expression was certainly different, but the underlying commitment to argument was the same. But the most obvious contrast was in the scale and academic dedication of the Center. A major lesson that I learnt on that first visit was the value of a particular sort of intellectual integrity - of pursing your own research agenda without too much regard for fashion or received wisdom or other considerations. Of course, by this time it was already abundantly clear that the Buchanan project was a major success in the sense that its value was being recognised within the mainstream of economics and politic - the Nobel Prize was only a few years in the future - but the lesson is valuable independent of that.
Over my career to date, almost everything that I have written - either alone or with real co-authors (most obviously over the last decade with Geoffrey Brennan) - has been deeply influenced by the work and the vision of Jim Buchanan and, to a lesser but still personally significant extent, Jack Wiseman. Perhaps my particular personal history leads me to overstate the significance of the relationship between these two - and I would certainly not deny that for each of them there were many other significant collaborations that helped to shape ideas. My claim is only that the Buchanan-Wiseman link was significant, and that most of those other collaborations left their mark in the record by way of joint publications - so that there is a danger that any narrow reading of the record might overlook the Buchanan-Wiseman connection.
So, what might Buchanan and Wiseman have written together? Based on what they wrote separately and on what I know of their interests and character, how might their collaboration have gone if it had moved from the status of 'virtual co-authors' to real co-authors? We will never know. There are many topics that they might have addressed together, but I will speculate briefly in just one of the many areas they might have considered at a relatively early stage: the economics of clubs.
The clues here are relatively easy to see. One of Jack's early papers - Wiseman (1957) - made use of the idea of a 'club' as a part of an analysis of public utility pricing. The idea here was that the consumers of a public utility provided under a multi-part tariff could be seen as forming a type of 'club', and that this fact, together with the presumption that such 'clubs' were voluntary, provided the basis for much of the normative appeal of the multi-part pricing solution to the public utility pricing problem. Somewhat typically, Jack's discussion is a strong criticism of the 'club principle' and, in particular, it's normative appeal. And this is so even though he could not cite any reference providing any formal analysis of the 'club principle'. In a sense, Buchanan provided the missing reference with his famous (1965) paper An Economic Theory of Clubs - a paper that lays out a model of clubs within the mainstream neo-classical tradition in an attempt to fill some of the middle ground between the polar cases of private and Samuelsonian public goods. Wiseman's basic normative criticism of the 'club principal' was that clubs of this type operate to impose essentially arbitrary value judgements, since membership of the club is not truly voluntary, and the internal operation of the club is not truly based on either individual exchange or unanimity. As Jack once said to me, 'a club is usually a blunt instrument of coercion'. Of course, Jack's particular criticism is specific to the public utility pricing context, but Jack's clear interest in the normative aspect of the club principle and its application in different contexts, on the basis of a normative approach shared by Jim, together with the clearly specified and developed model in Jim's paper, could have provided the basis for a joint project on the theme of coercive and voluntary clubs - their emergence, their behaviour, and their role in specific institutional settings. Of course, much of this work was eventually done - but it did not appear under the names of Buchanan and Wiseman, and perhaps I might be allowed to think that it might have advanced the shift to the constitutional political economy approach had it been a Buchanan-Wiseman project.
A final question is why Buchanan and Wiseman did not, in fact, write together. Again, we will never know, but here I will offer three possible reasons beginning with the most prosaic. It may be that they were prevented from real co-authorship by simple practicalities. Particularly in the days before word processing and E-mail, co-authorship more or less demanded face-to-face contact on a regular and frequent basis, and a commitment to make time. By the early to mid 1960s both Jim Buchanan and Jack Wiseman were busy men with existing co-authors, on-going research projects, numerous academic and other commitments. Perhaps there were just too many practical obstacles. This is all true to at least some extent, but it is not very interesting.
A more interesting possibility focuses primarily on Jack Wiseman. Jack was constitutionally incapable of writing anything that was not true to his own methodological position. This did not place too tight a constraint on him as long as he stuck to more applied work, or to pieces that were essentially critical in nature. But once it came to attempts to express his own vision in any detail, or to build on his proclaimed foundations, the constraints imposed by his own subjectivism started to bind very quickly. Jack's situation was captured neatly by his one-time colleague, Alan Coddington, who was actually writing about Keynes, Shackle and Loasby, but could easily have been writing about Jack, when he wrote3:
"A consistent or all-embracing subjectivism is, analytically, a very self-denying thing. If subjectivist logic is followed …. there is nothing for economists to do but to understand certain (praxiological) concepts …. there would be nothing left but for the whole profession to shut up shop …. We would then be faced with a situation akin to one in which there was an outbreak of Christian Science among the medical profession, or a passion for telekenesis among airline pilots." (Coddington, 1982, p486).
There is, no doubt, at least some truth in this suggestion that Jack's radical subjectivism could not sit easily with any constructive analysis. But there is a third and happier possibility. Perhaps Buchanan and Wiseman recognised that their state of virtual co-authorship offered both of them benefits of a kind, and of a quality, that might be threatened if they had seriously attempted to write together. The additional pressures and tensions generated by real co-authorship might have eroded the strong link that allowed them to provide each other with encouragement, friendly criticism and support for thirty years. The affection and respect that Jack had for Jim, and the strength Jack drew from their friendship were clear to anyone who knew Jack. That these feelings were mutual is indicated by the fact that it is Jack's portrait that hangs in pride of place just outside Jim's office door in Buchanan House. Perhaps real co-authors are more easily found.
1More detailed biographical information is available in Buchanan (1991, 1992), Wiseman (1989).
2In Buchanan's case, most obviously, Knight and Wicksell; in Wiseman's case, Coase and Robbins.
3I need hardly add that it was Jack who first brought this quote to my attention.
Buchanan, J.M. (1958) Public Principles of Public Debt, Irwin.
Buchanan, J.M. (1965) An Economic Theory of Clubs, Economica, 32, 1-14.
Buchanan, J.M. (1991) Jack Wiseman: A Personal Appreciation, Constitutional Political Economy, 2, 1-6.
Buchanan, J.M. (1992) Better than Plowing and other Personal Essays, University of Chicago Press.
Buchanan, J.M. & Tullock, G. (1962) The Calculus of Consent, University of Michigan Press.
Coddington, A. (1982) Deficient Foresight: A Troublesome Theme in Keynesian Economics, American Economic Review, 72, 480-487.
Cullis, J. and Jones, P. (1998) Public Finance and Public Choice (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press.
Peacock, A. and Wiseman, J. (1961) The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, Oxford University Press.
Wiseman, J. (1957) The Theory of Public Utility Pricing: An Empty Box, Oxford Economic Papers. Reprinted in Wiseman, J. (1989) Cost, Choice and Political Economy, Edward Elgar.
Wiseman, J. (1989) Talks too much…., in Wiseman, J. Cost, Choice and Political Economy, Edward Elgar.