Catedrático de Economía Política y Hacienda Pública
Universidad de Valladolid (Spain)
JAMES M. BUCHANAN: A VIEW FROM THE PERIPHERY
Long ago, the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset, wrote: "I am I and my circumstance". Making this dictum mine, I want to pay tribute to James M. Buchanan by explaining something about myself and my particular circumstance, and how the influence of James Buchanan has been decisive in my formation as an economist, and continues to affect my academic career in the most inspiring way.
I seem to recall it was 1971 when I found myself reading for the first time the Spanish translation of Jim Buchanan's book The Public Finances (in Spanish: Hacienda Pública, Editorial de Derecho Financiero, Madrid: 1968). At that time I had already graduated in Law and in Economics from a university in the North of Spain, and was enrolled in the doctorate program in the university of my hometown, in the center of Spain. I knew about Jim Buchananīs work on public debt from my undergraduate course in public finance, but it was while digging into Jimīs textbook that I became deeply aware of his strong authority and leadership in modern economics.
In 1971 nobody could deny that living and working in Spain was in fact living and working at the periphery. The periphery in social terms, because the political system in Spain was a National Socialist dictatorship where basic human rights were not respected. The periphery in academic terms, because most of the ideas Spanish students of economics received in those days were limited to Keynesian economics, very much biased towards "import substitution", and "planning economics". In my personal case, living and working in Spain in those days created in me the strong feeling of being at the periphery, very much isolated from the core ideas and values shared by the academic centers of the world. This feeling was the driving force of my applications, first, in 1973, for a Fulbright scholarship to follow graduate courses in economics in the U.S.A., and later, in 1978, for a postdoctoral grant from the Commission for Educational Exchange between the U.S.A. and Spain to visit the Center of Public Choice, then at V.P.I. Both of my stays in the U.S.A. gave me the opportunity of being exposed to approaches and ideas completely new to me. Yet my stay in Blacksburg became "the opening of a new window" through which to look at social interaction from a different perspective from the one I was accustomed to in my previous formation. The opportunity that Jim Buchanan gave me (without knowing me at all and without demanding any references) by accepting my application to visit the Public Choice Center is a gesture for which I will never be able to thank him sufficiently. Jim enabled me to participate in the weekly seminars of the Center, and to see at first hand how time-honored "truths" of conventional economics could be scrutinized and demolished by radical thinking. This opportunity has constituted the most exciting experience of my academic career. From Professor Buchanan not only I have learned much about social sciences in general and economics in particular, but, above all, I have learned a style of academic behavior. I now appreciate the importance of, disregarding volatile scholar fashions, keeping oneself committed to rigorous thinking as the only way to expand knowledge that, in turn, will provide the building blocks for advancing a better society.
For many in 1999, Spain is no longer part of the periphery, though whether the bottle is half full or half empty, it is undoubtedly being filled at a reasonable good rate. What really matters to me is that the frustrating feeling I had 28 years ago is no longer with me. After my return from Blacksburg, I had the opportunity to visit the Center of Public Choice again during my sabbatical leave in the academic year 1989-90. I have since then been honored by several visits from Professor Buchanan who has come to lecture in my hometown University of Valladolid, where I work. He has accepted the nomination of an honorary doctoral degree from this university, and this circumstance has established a deep link between him and students and professors of this university. Nowadays every visitor of the University of Valladolid can see Jimīs name under the victor's symbol of the doctoral honorary degree on the stone walls of the fifteen century palace where the rectorado is located. Whenever some reference to any of Jimīs contributions comes up in seminars, I can notice that my students quote Jim's words with familiarity, respect and admiration. Indeed, they echo my own feelings for a person from whom I have learned so much.