The Passing of James Buchanan

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I was very sad to hear of the passing of Nobel Prize winner and public choice pioneer James Buchanan.  As one of the developers of public choice, Buchanan has had an enormous influence on the way we think about politics and a significant effect on the disciplines of economics and political science.

Buchanan also had tremendous influence on my own thinking.  One of the key aspects of the case for the classical liberal society is that the government does not behave as we would like, but instead acts in accordance with political power.  Such political power is a function of some groups having the ability and incentives to influence the political process and of other groups being ignorant of that process.  Of course, this does not mean that the public necessarily receives no benefits.  But it does mean that those benefits will generally be in accord with the preferences of people who display significant ignorance.

I have been especially influenced by Buchanan’s work with Gordon Tullock in The Calculus of Consent.  Their work was the foundation for my own work with John McGinnis on supermajority rules.  In particular, Buchanan and Tullock showed that the Constitution’s tricameral legislative process – of House, Senate, and President – operated like a kind of supermajority rule.  They also argued that enacting a constitution (as opposed to the laws under the constitution) should be done with strict supermajority rules, in part because of a limited veil of ignorance.  My own argument (with John McGinnis) for a strict supermajoritarian enactment of constitutions relied upon and extended their argument.

I should note that my argument for employing supermajority rules to enact constitutional provisions differs a bit from Buchanan and Tullock’s.  While I (not surprising) prefer my own treatment,  that is largely a minor issue.  The major insight was theirs.