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Will the Real James Buchanan Please Stand Up

Summary:
Hands down the best book you will read on James McGill Buchanan this year, or any year to this date, is Richard Wagner's James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy.  The book is full of insights drawn from a 50 year association with Buchanan and his work -- as his student, as his co-author, as his colleague.  Wagner, in my opinion, is the intellectual heir to Buchanan's liberal political economy is more qualified than any other figure world-wide to explain the subtleties as well as the tensions in Buchanan's system.  Wagner's work is no hagiographic presentation of the great scholars work, Wagner is a too creative, critical and independent mind to produce such a work.  No, this is a serious critical exposition and creative rational reconstruction of the Buchanan project.  It is,

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Hands down the best book you will read on James McGill Buchanan this year, or any year to this date, is Richard Wagner's James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy.  The book is full of insights drawn from a 50 year association with Buchanan and his work -- as his student, as his co-author, as his colleague.  Wagner, in my opinion, is the intellectual heir to Buchanan's liberal political economy is more qualified than any other figure world-wide to explain the subtleties as well as the tensions in Buchanan's system.  Wagner's work is no hagiographic presentation of the great scholars work, Wagner is a too creative, critical and independent mind to produce such a work.  No, this is a serious critical exposition and creative rational reconstruction of the Buchanan project.  It is, in short, brilliant.

To give you a glimpse of this consider the following paragraph on pp. 58-59 summarizing Buchanan's project in Constitutional Political Economy:

Constitutional political economy entails Buchanan's many efforts to explain how the framework of rules by which a governing regime is constituted influences a regime's properties.  Normatively, Buchanan was a democrat who embraced the democratic ideology of self-governance.  His orientation in this respect was like that which Vincent Ostrom (1997)* expressed toward democracy as simultaneously desirable and subject to degradation that required conscious effort to resist.  Recognition of the potential for democratic degradation was present at the American constitutional founding when Benjamin Franklin responded "a republic, if you can keep it" to a woman who asked him what form of government the Constitutional Convention had created.  Establishing a democratic government entails both normative and positive propositions, and constitutional political economy was Buchanan's intellectual creation through which he explored his normative interest in self-governing republics while simultaneously recognizing that the qualifies of democratic governance depended upon the institutional arrangements by which a regime was constituted.  Constitutional political economy is the term that bears witness to Buchanan's effort to relate the outcomes of group deliberations to the underlying desires and beliefs of the people who established that group in the first place.  Central to Buchanan's theorizing was his recognition, traceable to Wicksell, that the degree of correspondence between the actions that emerge from a parliamentary assembly and those outcomes that might reasonably have been imagined to have emerged from the underlying population depends on both the rules by which a parliamentary assembly does its business and the rules by which membership in that assembly is determined.   Through his construction of constitutional political economy, Buchanan sought to combine the legacies he received from Wicksell and de Viti with his own creative imagination in developing an alternative approach to a theory of public finance that speaks to the situation that confronts self-governing republics.

*The 1997 reference is to Vincent Ostrom's book The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies published by University of Michigan Press. Another must read for anyone hoping to tackle the issue of the normative value of democratic self-governance and the positive analysis of the possibility of democratic degradation.

So, let's get this right -- democratic theorist -- check; protection of minority rights against the tyranny of the majority -- check; normative embrace of democratic self-governance -- check; positive analysis of how institutional environments impact democratic deliberation -- check; one of the most important and creative thinkers in liberal political economy in the 20th and 21st century -- check.

Perhaps not what you have been hearing this summer, but definitely what the real James Buchanan stood for with his work and his various efforts in research and graduate education.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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