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James Buchanan

Author(s):Reisman, David
Reviewer(s):Marciano, Alain

Published by EH.Net (October 2016)

David Reisman, James Buchanan. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. vii + 251 pp. $115 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-42717-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alain Marciano, Department of Economics, Université de Montpellier.

James Buchanan was a prolific writer: his collected works represent twenty volumes — to be precise, the last one is an index — and yet not all his writings have been republished. This gives an idea of how an attempt to give an overview of Buchanan’s work in a single volume can be, although undoubtedly useful, not an easy task to achieve. This is nonetheless the challenge David Reisman takes up, and meets, in James Buchanan. Indeed, those who want to improve their knowledge and their understanding of the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate in economics should read it. In addition to details about Buchanan as a public choice theorist, they will learn that he was a scholar with a “nuanced and idiosyncratic” (p. 5) ideology. A defender of free-markets and, more globally, of individual freedom, Buchanan also believed in justice, ethics and human dignity. This is what Reisman tells us in this book, through an analysis and a classification of the “extremely long list of books and papers” (p. 9) Buchanan wrote.

To organize his presentation of Buchanan’s work, Reisman adopts two positions, which are more or less the same as the one he adopted in his previous book on Buchanan, published over twenty-five years ago (1989). First, following  Buchanan on what he himself wrote about his work — “my work takes on an internal coherence and consistency that … was not, of course, a deliberately chosen element of a research program … [and that] stems from the simple fact that I have worked from a single methodological perspective during the four decades that span my career to date, along with the fact that I have accepted the normative implications of this perspective” (Buchanan, 2007, 17) — and following what others (e.g., Romer, 1988; Atkinson, 1987) have also stressed, Reisman starts by assuming that Buchanan’s work remained consistent over the years. More precisely, he writes: “Despite the sheer volume of work and the number of years that went by, what is striking is that the message remained basically the same” (p. 10; emphasis added) — a point of the utmost importance that I will discuss again below. Indeed, “Running through the six decades is the same message of freedom within unfreedom, innovation within rules. Individuals choose. Politics is exchange. Economics is search. Life is disequilibrium. Agreement is civilisation” (p. 10-11). This guides Reisman in structuring his book thematically. It also allows him to give only the references of the quotations to the collective works instead of to the original work. It is therefore not possible, except with a detailed table of contents of Buchanan’s collective works at hands, to know the title and year of publication from which the quotations are excerpted. This makes sense: who needs a chronology if it can be said that Buchanan’s first published article — “The Pure Theory of Government Finance” — “sets out his position with great clarity” (Atkinson, 1987, 6) and “reads like a manifesto for his life” (ibid., quoted by Reisman, 10)? One can focus on analyzing the ideas rather than on recounting their history. This is mainly what Reisman does in his book.

To be precise, Buchanan’s starting point is older than 1949. He had already set out his position in his master essay (1947) and in his doctoral dissertation (1948) (see Marciano, 2016; Boettke and Marciano, forthcoming). And, actually, everything was not given from the start. Even in terms of Buchanan’s message. More was to come: constitutions, ethics and social justice (especially in a federal regime), free riding and the limits of self-interest, market failures and externalities, clubs, coercion … Buchanan wrote about these themes later and none of them were really included in this article. What led him to these questions? Reisman writes that “Buchanan was a self-starter” (p. 9) He is right. Buchanan wrote: “I have written largely in response to ideas that beckoned, ideas that offered some intellectual challenge and that had not, to my knowledge, been developed by others. I have rarely been teased by either the currency of policy topics or the fads of academic fashion, and when I have been so tempted my work has suffered” (2007, 17). But Buchanan was not immune to influences coming from people and from events taking place in his environment. This aspect could have been lost in a thematic presentation. Reisman avoids the trap. He rightly emphasizes the importance of people — Gordon Tullock or Winston Bush, for instance — or events — the student unrest in the late 1960s. However, a chronological presentation, or at least a time frame, would have been useful to have a better understanding the evolution of Buchanan’s ideas and even of his message.

The second position Reisman adopts relates to his way of presenting Buchanan. He also adopts the view Buchanan gave of himself: an economist who was “outside the mainstream” (Buchanan, 2007, 18). Reisman insists on this, quoting Buchanan who wrote: “I am not, and I have never been, an ‘economist’ in any narrowly-defined meaning” (p. 181). One of the reasons for this was that Buchanan did not “views human beings as self-interested, utility-maximizing agents, basically independent from one another” (p. 87). Although he believed in self-interest, Buchanan did not adhere to the vision of the homo œconomicus narrowly defined. This is one of the great merits of Reisman’s book — explaining Buchanan’s views on man. In addition, another reason that explains that Buchanan was an outsider relates to the type of questions he analyzed. One of the pioneers in the use of economics to analyze non-market phenomena, he was, according to Reisman, only marginally interested in analyzing the working of the economy: “Only secondarily [Buchanan’s economics] is it about goods and services” (p. 181), and “Allocative efficiency and general equilibrium are a poor second” (p. 181). Reisman pushes the claim that “Buchanan’s economics is a minority interest” (p. 181). Instead Buchanan was primarily interested in constitutional and operational rules, processes, institutions and constitutions, agreements and voting — Buchanan’s economics “primary focus is on consensual order and conflict resolution” (p. 181) or “is primarily the study of processes and rules” (p. 181).

This is, therefore, how Reisman organizes his book. He focuses on what Buchanan wrote about operational and constitutional rules, norms and laws, agreements and consent, and anarchy — and devotes less attention to Buchanan’s economic analyses. For instance, Cost and Choice is only cited three times, while Buchanan considered it to be his “best work in economic theory, narrowly defined” (2007, 9). Along the same lines, Reisman interprets Buchanan’s statement that “the Italian approach to the whole problem of public debt was instrumental in shaping my views” as meaning that it “reinforced his commitment to constitutionalism” (pp. 148-149). It might be the case. But one must not forget that this trip in Italy reinforced Buchanan’s conviction that a new theory in public finance was needed (see Buchanan, 1957, 1958). Finally, one may regret that Reisman does not even treat certain of Buchanan’s analyses which are nonetheless important, such as what Buchanan wrote about externalities and market failures or clubs. These are technically important analyses, which were also important for Buchanan. In addition, they also evidence that although an outsider he nonetheless also used the codes of neo-classical economics. This is surprising enough to be mentioned.

In fact, there is another reason that explains why it is not that important to discuss Buchanan’s work in economic theory, narrowly defined. Reisman thinks that this is secondary because Buchanan was first and foremost a social and moral philosopher. Once again, this is also how Buchanan viewed himself. Reisman reminds us in the introduction of the book that Buchanan wrote: “by profession, I am an economist; by interest, I am a social philosopher” (p. 6). But, it seems that Reisman interprets this in a very specific way. Indeed, to Reisman this implies that Buchanan had a normative message — the one that remained basically the same during all of Buchanan’s career — to deliver. He insists that Buchanan was “a serious-minded moralist” (p. 1), a preacher “who practiced what he preached” (p. 10), a “prophet” (p. 236), and a “moral crusader” (p. 236). He even gives a reason, explaining that Buchanan was “a secular preacher from the hell-fire Bible Belt who believed that he had a duty to put things right” (p. 2). To him, Buchanan “recognised that things had gone wrong. He made it his mission to put them right again” (p. 1). This is precisely why he chose economics — because in Reisman’s words, it “is the right subject for a social philosopher anxious to do good” (p. 235). In other words, Buchanan chose and used economics to promote a normative message. Reisman quotes Buchanan: “The ultimate purpose is the ‘ought,’ no matter how purely we stick positively with the ‘is”’ (p. 235). This statement resonates strangely when one remembers that Buchanan wrote, in 1959, that the political economist must remain “ethically neutral” (p. 127) and stick to a scientific, non-normative or positive role (p. 137). Is there a contradiction? Or could it be the case that, in those years, Buchanan was not a preacher yet — maybe because he had not the feeling that things had turned bad? These questions, without contradicting Reisman, suggest that there remains some room for more discussions about a scholar who was not only prolific but also complex.


Anthony B. Atkinson (1987), “James M. Buchanan’s Contributions to Economics,” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, vol. 89, no 1: 5-15.

Peter Boettke and Alain Marciano (2017, forthcoming). The Elgar Companion to James Buchanan, Cheltenham: Elgar.

James M. Buchanan (1957), “External and Internal Public Debt,” American Economic Review, vol. 47, no. 6: 995-1000.

James Buchanan (1958 [1999]), Public Principles of Public Debt: A Defense and Restatement, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (volume 2, collected works).

James Buchanan (1959), “Positive Economics, Welfare Economics, and Political Economy,” Journal of Law and Economics, vol. 2, Oct: 124-138.

James Buchanan (2007), Economics from the Outside in: “Better Than Plowing” and Beyond, College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Alain Marciano (2016), “Buchanan’s Non-Coercive Economics for Self-Interested Individuals: Ethics, Small Groups, and the Social Contract,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought, vol. 38, no 1: 1-20.

David Reisman (1990), The Political Economy of James Buchanan, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Thomas Romer (1988), “Nobel Laureate: On James Buchanan’s Contributions to Public Economics,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 2, no 4: 165-179.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII