A Report to the Committee on the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, 1985: The Contributions of James M. Buchanan to Economics and Political Economy
ABSTRACT Buchanan's contributions through 1984 are surveyed in six areas: (A) debt, fiscal illusion, and Keynesian criticisms, (B) London School of Economics cost approach, (C) methodological individualism and the economics of politics, (D) welfare price theory, (E) rent-seeking and polity failure, and (F) political economy and constitutions. A comprehensive bibliography of ten books, four monographs, forty-three refereed articles, thirty essays in books, ten short papers, thirty-three papers in collected works, and a translation is offered.
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- Journal of Political Economy 01/1956; 64(5):416-424. · 2.90 Impact Factor
A REPORT TO THE COMMITTEE ON THE NOBEL PRIZE IN ECONOMIC
SCIENCE, 1985: THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF JAMES M. BUCHANAN TO
ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL ECONOMY
Thomas E. Borcherding*
Buchanan’s contributions through 1984 are surveyed in six areas: (A) debt, fiscal illusion, and
Keynesian criticisms, (B) London School of Economics cost approach, (C) methodological
individualism and the economics of politics, (D) welfare price theory, (E) rent-seeking and polity
failure, and (F) political economy and constitutions. A comprehensive bibliography of ten books,
four monographs, forty-three refereed articles, thirty essays in books, ten short papers, thirty-three
papers in collected works, and a translation is offered.
*Professor of Economic and Politics, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA. 91711-6165.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank his research assistant Portia
DiGiovanni Besocke, a PhD candidate in Economics at Claremont Graduate University, for help in
accurately reproducing the original report. Borcherding is wholly responsible for any misinterpretations or
working papers in economics
Claremont Graduate University • Claremont Institute for Economic
Policy Studies • Claremont McKenna College • Drucker Graduate
School of Management • Harvey Mudd College • Lowe Institute •
Pitzer College • Pomona College • Scripps College
A Note to the Reader
A version of this report was given November 25, 1985 as a paper on a Southern Economic
Association (SEA) panel in Dallas devoted to the contributions of James M. Buchanan to economics,
politics, and moral philosophy. When SEA president-elect Bill Breit solicited this paper, I readily
agreed since, in fact, the essay was already written early in 1985 in the form of a confidential report to
the Nobel Prize in Economic Science Committee. I was not permitted to reveal this at the SEA
meetings, but with Buchanan’s Noble Prize award in fall 1986 that constraint was removed. Thus,
this paper is offered as an historical document1.
The reader should note that the report does not cover the period 1985 to the present. Such an
updating would have required a much longer paper, and one that would not have changed the tenor
of my analysis, which holds that Buchanan’s life’s work—besides creating a field along with several
able colleagues who founded the Public Choice Society—has centered around a very simple but
profound intellectual program: to wit, institutions matter in shaping social behavior. Buchanan
argues that not only do institutions shape human behavior in markets, politics, and in social life, but
more importantly they evolve in predictable ways as key exogenous variables such as factor supply,
information and technology, law and constitutional life, and social attitudes change. This
neoinstitutionalist perspective is as prevalent in Buchanan’s writings before 1985 as after.
Finally, before I reveal the original Nobel report, let me offer my good wishes to James Buchanan for
more decades of productive life, and continued honor from several academic professions that would
be the poorer without his prolific and original insights.
1 Minor changes from the original have been made to correct various citation and, alas, stylistic and
This is not the first review of the work of James Buchanan, nor probably the last. Mueller (1981) and
Locksley (1981) offered two admirable interpretative, but narrow, essays, and Blaug (1971) has
written a short biography with a soupçon of criticism. That leaves me some maneuvering room and
one in which I will present as subjective a critique as I dare, with the accompanying hope that I will
treat issues in a slightly different manner than those aforementioned authors.
Before I commence perhaps I should say a bit about my own credentials, else the reader may
question my scrutiny of that massive list at the paper’s end, the “Key Works of James. M.
Buchanan2.” I was, as the reader should know, an unofficial student of Buchanan. In spring 1962 I
was introduced to his writings by my advisor David Davies in a Duke graduate seminar on public
finance and his works featured in my thesis written in 1963-1965. In 1965-1966, I was a Thomas
Jefferson Center post-doctoral fellow at University of Virginia and studied under Buchanan.
Between 1971 and 1973, I served with him as a colleague on the faculty at Virginia Polytechnic
Below, I have broken Buchanan’s voluminous work into six areas, but the reader is forewarned that I
have not devoted a separate part to examine his contributions to moral philosophy because of my
own limitations in that area. Nonetheless, I have briefly alluded to his contributions in this area in
the last area surveyed on constitutional economics, a topic which Buchanan- following David Hume
and Adam Smith- sees as closely related to moral philosophy. Following this descriptive-
interpretative section is a short set of conclusions.
2 Selection of “Key Works” was based entirely upon my judgment.
2. EVALUATIONS OF BUCHANAN’S WRITINGS
A. Debt, Fiscal Illusion and Keynesian Criticisms
Buchanan is a sort of Keynesian, though I doubt he would accept this title. In his writings on debt
(B1, B5, B8, B9, M2, M3, A35, A39, C5, C6, C10, S4, S8) he clearly indicates a disbelief in the
Ricardian equivalence theorem, i.e., the view that voters perceive the burden of the public debt as a
claim on future taxes. This and his belief in “tax illusions” (B3, B9, C3, C11, C18, C27, S1, O4) place
him among the severe skeptics about the role that rational expectations play in politics. Here he is at
the opposite end of the spectrum from Robert Barro (1978) who holds (but offers exceedingly flimsy
evidence) that government debt is just an efficient means of spreading public sector costs over time,
lowering the real costs of fiscal actions in the process. To Barro public debt is just another tax
instrument in the optimal taxation process.
I find about half of Buchanan’s writing on debt unhelpful. Although he spends many pages
distinguishing objective costs (the putative social cost) from subjective costs (what the voter “feels”),
I glean no operational delineation of these early exercises, and, worse yet, I find myself confused by
them. I have noted, however, that in recent years with his joining forces with Richard Wagner (M2,
O4) he seems to be taking a very sensible (and potentially operational) position that the “veil of
ignorance” in politics is difficult for the average citizen (or marginal voter) to pierce and debt can
make informed choice difficult. Here Buchanan is quite Downsian, arguing that there is ample room
for bias in voter ignorance, because political entrepreneurs have incentives to make tax-costs look
small relative to expenditure-gains. This fraud is accentuated by the short time-horizons of the
politicians as well as voters’ (optimal) ignorance. George Stigler (1982) and Gary Becker (1976a,
1976b) seem to deny this putative principal-agent misallocation, but Buchanan is quite mainstream in
his belief that such asymmetries in information are part and parcel of public choice, a position in the
received wisdom of political economy from the time of Adam Smith.
Essentially, the usefulness of this deceitful vote-buying hypothesis hinges on empirics. I fear that
Buchanan’s contribution here is as much based on gut feeling as on the evidence, but Barro, Stigler,
and Becker offer nothing more. I believe, however, that Buchanan will be proven a bit correct and
this extreme New Chicago position somewhat wrong. For example, the political business cycle
literature seems to be indicating that political delusions can and do pay as long as they are both
infrequent and novel. I find it paradoxical, if not ironic, that strong-form, rational expectationist
Barro (with David Gordon 1983) has shown that the “last move” potential in government’s arsenal
of fiscal strategies, together with the unwillingness or inability of politicians to bind themselves to
prudent future course of action, makes for problems in constraining government. Thus, policy
instability emerges from this shaky principal-agent relationship- essentially, government policy is a
lemon’s problem. At the least, this indicates that utility of Buchanan’s call for a spending constraint
in the U.S. federal budget and balanced budgets as well as for the adoption of broad monetary rules
(B8, M3, M4, A42, C1, C16), a plea joined in by Old Chicagoan Milton Friedman and many others.
B. L.S.E. Cost Approach
Buchanan explores the notion of opportunity cost in several places: a careful and sadly neglected
short book (B5), in a little introduction (C2), and in several articles (C5, C11, C25, C27). He points
out that, strictly speaking, opportunity costs cannot be measured. If a chooser facing alternatives A
and B chooses A, its cost is the value of B foregone. Because B is not chosen, however, its costs are
not objectively ascertainable.
This point is well taken in a world of heterogeneous opportunity sets where choice sets are
discontinuous, non-repetitive, and unavailable under competitive conditions. Empirical economists
should read this work and take it to heart. Still, they may not be intellectual moved. The reason is