Lytton W. Stoddard
RIGHT THING, RIGHT WAY, RIGHT PLACE
Sometimes, a curious student quite unexpectedly finds his teacher in one of the serendipitous, ironic turns in life that constitute part of its mystery and adventure for the young. That is how I found Professor Buchanan.
Long before I arrived at Virginia Tech, I knew of Professor Buchanan through his works. As a graduate student in California interested in both Neoclassical theory and environmental economics, I had read Buchanan's principal works on externalities and public goods. The coherence of their clever, systematic arguments compelled respect for the relevance of Neoclassic analytical techniques to problems ordinarily considered outside its domain. The understanding they conveyed immediately became essential to my understanding of the structure of Neoclassic thought itself.
As part of my general education in California, I was also familiar with The Calculus of Consent, and I was even vaguely aware of Public Choice economics. As a young graduate student, however, I was a creature of the social turmoil and the politics of the times. I was proud to stand for the core values of the New Left, and I was an active moderate in its tumultuous politics. While I respected the logic of economic theory, The Calculus of Consent and Public Choice theory seemed no more than misplaced applications of the tools of Neoclassic thought. In my circle, they were considered efforts to worm reactionary ideas into the public discourse to confuse and distract. These works of Professor Buchanan were of little use to me. It was easy to dismiss them; it seemed moral to dismiss them. It seemed they must be the product of a man more reactionary than the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Then life took an unexpected turn. After being out of economics for a while, I decided that I wanted to return, so I wrote my old California professor, Paul Downing, about what to do. At that time, he was at Virginia Tech, and recommended that I come there. He said I would find it interesting. The idea was shocking. I knew Virginia Tech was the home of a brand of economics that was antithetical to my New Left values, and going there as a student implied their utter betrayal. Nevertheless, I knew immediately that I would come because Paul Downing had always been right before. I came, though, not because of Professor Buchanan, but in spite of him.
My first year at Virginia Tech, spent in ordinary course work, allowed watching Professor Buchanan from afar. In a few seminars I listened to him present his own ideas; in other seminars I listened to his comments. He seemed less the Sheriff of Nottingham than a thoughtful man who was interested in boring to the heart of an issue without dominating the event. I noted how he used his questions and comments to help clarify the subject matter, and to point in directions that might reinforce or extend the research. He left the impression of an intellectual, not an ideologue.
At the beginning of my second year, I signed up for Professor Buchanan's public finance course. By then I knew from other graduate students that it was special, and not to be missed regardless of one's area of concentration. It was a chance to see an accomplished thinker in action because he organized much of the course around a topic he was working on at the time. I figured that despite our respective politics, I could not pass up the chance to watch the workings of what I knew to be a notably fertile and creative mind.
The course turned out to be more special than I had expected, in a way very different than I had expected. The first part of the class concentrated on the standard issues of externalities and public goods, materials I knew well from California. Hearing the materials presented by the master himself was, of course, interesting. Unexpected, but far more interesting, was the way he sought and handled the questions and comments of the students. I marveled more each time as he subtly interpreted the student's point to reveal its best features, and then proceeded to respond to it with exactly the right comments. He said exactly the right thing in exactly the right way -- every time. Whatever the question, however superficial or penetrating, he answered seriously, considerately, and insightfully. And in answering, he conveyed the nuances and the ambiguities and the uncertainties of the matter. His answers were rich with content, content more than enough to inform and stimulate regardless of background. I saw immediately they were the answers of a man who above all loved the beauty and play of ideas, and who had dedicated his life to their pursuit. I knew then I had found my teacher. His passion for ideas had trumped my politics. I knew then I would watch and learn while this man pursued his passion. Paul Downing had been right again. I suddenly knew I was in the right place.
When I approached the right turn off the Blacksburg by-pass toward the Virginia Tech campus for the first time, I approached reluctantly because I knew that turning meant I would enter a new phase of my life with unknown consequences. I turned, thinking I was entering Nottingham County. I could hardly have expected to be finding my teacher. But those are the tricks that life sometimes plays. Without knowing it, I was getting lucky.
Happy Birthday, Professor Buchanan!