Leverhulme Personal Research Professor
School of Economic and Social Studies
University of East Anglia
Blacksburg, Virginia: summer, 1977
I first met Jim Buchanan in the summer of 1977.
I was then 27, a young lecturer in economics at the University of York, with very few publications to my name, quite a few good ideas, most of which I hadn't written down, and no very clear sense of direction in my research. In those days, university teaching in Britain was a much more leisured activity than it is now. It was still possible to get a tenured position in economics after finishing a master's degree, without having had any real apprenticeship in research. If you entered the profession in this way, as I did, you were asked to do what would now seem an astonishingly small amount of teaching and administration. It was expected that you would spend a reasonable -- but not excessive -- amount of the remaining time on research, but no one required you to formulate research plans or to submit reports to appraisers. The hope was that, given time and benign and unintrusive encouragement, you would mature into a first-class economist. It was easy to drift. It was also easy to lose self-confidence when you were working so much on your own, and getting the usual unhelpful rejection letters from journals. Both of these were beginning to happen to me.
I had had the idea of spending a summer in America, and had thought I might be able to finance this by teaching in a summer school. Alan Peacock had suggested the names of a few American professors that I might write to; one of them was Jim Buchanan. With my letter, I had sent a copy of a paper I had just written. It was one of my good ideas: it was about Amartya Sen's theorem of the 'impossibility of a Paretian liberal'. It argued that Sen's way of formulating liberty was misguided: Sen was trying to express the idea that people should be free to make certain choices for themselves, but he was using a theoretical framework of coherent 'social preferences' in which social choices are modelled as if they were made by a benevolent despot. It seems that, by a stroke of luck, my letter reached Jim just after he had presented a similar argument to a seminar at the Public Choice Center, and had completely failed to persuade his audience. I was invited to spend the summer of 1977 as a visitor at the Center, with all my expenses paid. It was the first time anything like this had happened to me.
It was also the first time I had been to America. Everything was new to me. I loved the small-town atmosphere of Blacksburg and of the sleepier towns around; I loved the humid heat which was so different from England; I loved the fireflies and the forests and the Appalachian mountains; I loved working in the Public Choice Center in its colonial-style house in the trees. I attended my first Liberty Fund conference, a two-week event at the Marriott in Blacksburg. Jim Buchanan, Gordon Tullock and Robert Nozick each gave a series of lectures. I began to understand the mix of conservatism, libertarianism and populism that makes up the Virginian approach to public choice.
Not that I agreed with it all: being in America helped me to see how different American political thought is from European. I couldn't share the American sense of government as an alien intrusion into individuals' lives. And though the state of the British economy in 1977 didn't exactly inspire pride, I wasn't convinced (as many people I met were) that Britain was in a state of terminal decline, destined for economic and political stagnation on the Eastern European model. But, more than anything else, what induced me to think seriously about this mix of ideas was listening to and talking with Jim Buchanan. I admired the strength of his convictions, his rootedness (as it has always seemed to me) in an historical tradition. I admired his sense that economics is not just a game for mathematicians to play, but a way of trying to understand the world as it is. Most of all, I admired his intellectual integrity -- his openness to new ideas, his willingness to listen to opposing points of view, his impatient rejection of bad arguments even when they appeared to support his own position. He became one of my intellectual heroes.
The idea of Jim's that had most resonance for me was his rejection of the benevolent despot model of government, which underlies so much of welfare economics and social choice theory. This line of thinking connected with my own, still only partly-formed, critique of Sen's account of liberty. It also appealed to a streak of populism in my own intellectual make-up. I have never been able to empathise with the self-assurance of those British economists who write as though the country is run by a small elite group of high-minded leaders -- politicians, senior civil servants and of course academics -- and as though they themselves are (or ought to be) members of the club. Nor have I felt easy with a related style of writing in moral philosophy, in which the object is to make clear the nature of the social good, as understood by right-thinking people, in the apparent expectation that this will provide guidance for the sort of high-minded leaders imagined by the economists. I discovered that Jim's contractarian approach provided the conceptual foundations for a radically different understanding of public choice, in which the aim is not to seek the good, but to seek agreement among individuals about how best to contain their conflicts and to achieve whatever ends they have in common. Ever since I learned this from Jim, it has surprised me how difficult it is for economists to grasp the logic of contractarianism, and to understand how it is possible to say something useful about economic and political choices without presupposing any conception of the overall social good.
In any event, when I returned to Britain in the autumn of 1977, I had a new sense of direction in my work: I had found the current of thought to which my developing ideas belonged. And I had that extra confidence that comes when your unconventional conclusions are supported by someone whose judgment you respect. Twenty-two years on, I can see the summer of 1977 as a turning-point in my career. Thank you, Jim.