“I ask myself again why anyone would find interest in the private dimensions of my own history,” muses Nobel laureate economist James M. Buchanan in his new collection of personal and intellectual autobiographical essays. The question, embedded in an essay entitled “Country Aesthetic,” which explores the manifold and profound meanings that the concept of country, and more importantly the concept of owning the land on which one lives, has for Buchanan, answers itself. Exploring the mind of a writer and thinker of Buchanan’s caliber is its own reward.
Buchanan is the founding father and linchpin of the “Virginia School” of economics, whose founding work was accomplished at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. The Virginia School’s prime contribution, for which Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986, is public choice theory, which upsets the shibboleths of interventionist economists (who assume government to be the perfect solution to all perceived “market failures”) by applying the standard of self-interested homo economicus to government actors as well as private ones.
This approach allows for consideration of the notion—heretical to big-government economists—that governments can fail in their supposed goals of disinterestedly pursuing the larger social good in the same way they like to accuse free markets of failing. They can no longer stack the analytical deck by comparing actual market performance to an arid, unrealistic vision of disinterested government perfection.
As Buchanan puts it, “the lasting contribution of public choice theory has been to correct this obvious imbalance in analysis. Any institutional comparison that is worthy of serious considerations must compare relevant alternatives; if market organization is to be replaced by politicized order . . . the two institutional structures must be evaluated on the basis of predictions as to how they will actually work. Political failure, as well as market failure, must become central to the comprehensive analysis that precedes normative judgment.”
Better Than Plowing provides only a brief and general summary of the economic thought for which Buchanan is famous. And if the public choice approach strikes the reader as the application of mere common sense, not worthy of world-class accolades, Buchanan feels the same way (“my surprise . . . is . . . at the failure of other economists to have acknowledged the simple and the obvious, which is all that I have ever claimed my work to be”); and yet it is in large part thanks to him that it has become customary in economics to apply such skeptical analysis to the actions of government.
Buchanan’s wise and personable modesty about his achievements pervades the book, as does a quiet pride in his Southern roots and the self-sufficiency of his country lifestyle. He describes himself as “a country boy from Middle Tennessee, educated in rural public schools and a local public teachers college, who is not associated with an establishment university, who has never shared the academically fashionable soft left ideology, who has worked in a totally unorthodox subject matter with very old-fashioned tools of analysis.” He wants his reader to grasp the lesson that “if Jim Buchanan can get a Nobel Prize, anyone can.” It is charming of Buchanan to hold this notion, reflecting well on his generosity of character. But the essays collected in this book put the lie to it. In his solid intellectual analysis, his self-sufficiency, and his love of work, Buchanan proves himself a better man than just anyone.
Buchanan offers his rural boyhood, his early college education at the Middle Tennessee State Teachers College, and his work on the Operations Staff of the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific theater during World War II as examples of his typicality; this could have been the life of any other Southern boy of his generation, he suggests. But it seems as if these experiences forged instead his singularity. He writes nonelegiacally about his working childhood on a farm and the day-to-day deprivations that did not seem to him to be deprivations; about being a day student riding into town and back to the farm in his early college days; of the precise and neverending work of tracking location and direction of movement for the U.S. fleet in the Pacific under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. He presents his life as if he believes it could have been anyone’s and could have turned him into anyone.
He muses on the nature of fate and circumstance in the words of a country tune he composed in his youth (“My mother discouraged me from even listening to country music, but it was so much a part of Middle Tennessee that all of us variously imagined ourselves to be songwriters”): “There are too many forks in the road, / There are too many forks in the road, / And I never could learn / Not to take the wrong turn. / There are too many forks in the road.”
While contemplating the way any different choice along the path of his life would have deposited him in a place miles and worlds away from the man he is now, Buchanan is lead to the conclusion that “exogenous event and chance may be far more relevant than personal choices.” He may believe this. But the character forged through the choices of his rural, Southern boyhood survives today in the almost transcendent satisfaction he experiences in the “physical engagement with the earth itself” that his current life (in a home that he largely built himself from the ground up, on land where he grows his own food) provides him. And this character, forged and tested through the choices he has made, is a necessary part of the man he reveals in this homey, sensible, and delightful book.
His character also defines the economic research program that earned him his renown. His dedication to free trade is rooted in his Southern identity; “I sensed that the free trade principle was indeed central to the traditional democratic-southern-populist set of values” and that “this principle had been subverted . . . by the protectionist-monopolist interest of the East and North.” His experience of discrimination against himself and his fellow Southerners by a cadet officer in the Army gave him a permanent dislike for the entrenched interests of Eastern elites who lord over and disdain the bulk of the citizenry.
His rural background, far removed from the depredations of the government whose skewed workings Buchanan has spent a career analyzing, also seems key in cementing individuals and their choices at the heart of his economic approach. Buchanan may poor-mouth himself and his economic achievements, but that is merely the pleasing modesty of the Southern boy who has worked, worked hard and worked well; and who has earned the sense of independence, security, and achievement that he seems to have taken from his life. Buchanan comes across as a delightful and intellectually powerful man; and, as like precedes from like, he has produced a delightful and intellectually powerful set of memoirs.
[Better Than Plowing and Other Personal Essays, by James M. Buchanan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 194 pp., $23.95]
Leave a Reply