Economics
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

A Note about James Buchanan

CHSS and Economics Faculty Pay Tribute to Professor James Buchanan

Written by Anne Reynolds

(To be published in Cornerstone Magazine, May 2013) 

James M. Buchanan: Noted Economist and Noble Laureate

This January, George Mason University lost one of the most esteemed figures in its history. James M. Buchanan, LLD (Hon.) ’87, distinguished professor emeritus of economics and advisory general director of the Center for Study of Public Choice, died at age 93 after a brief illness.

Professor Buchanan was a prominent figure in public choice theory of economics, which examines the actions of government officials or politicians as being motivated by self-interest instead of by a purely public interest. He founded the Center for Public Choice in 1983 while a professor at and moved the center to George Mason when he joined the faculty in 1986. That same year, he became Mason’s first Nobel laureate when he was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision making.”

The college is fortunate to be home to many noted economic scholars who actually worked with Buchanan and are carrying on the theories he espoused even today. Alex Tabarrok, MA ’92, PhD ’94, a professor in the Department of Economics and the general director of the Center for Study of Public Choice, noted that

In 1957 when Jim Buchanan founded what eventually became Mason’s Center for Study of Public Choice, he laid out a simple goal, nothing less than the rebirth of political economy. Jim Buchanan's achieved his life goal, he reunited economics with political science and political philosophy and made profound contributions to each of these subjects along the way. The Center for Study of Public Choice has inherited Buchanan’s mission, we strive to expand and extend the new political economy building on the foundations laid by Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Jim Buchanan. 

Richard Wagner, professor of economics at Mason and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Economics, recalled Buchanan’s contribution to the art of teaching: “While James Buchanan crafted a memorable body of scholarship that I call upon often, I remember him particularly fondly for his unique style of classroom instruction which has guided me throughout my career.”

Tyler Cowen, BS ’83, the Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at Mason and director of the Mercatus Center, sums Buchanan’s contributions succinctly: "James M. Buchanan was one of the great American economists and he revolutionized every department he taught in, Mason included. His receipt of the Nobel Prize was one of the turning points in the history of this school."

Buchanan’s impact on Mason and the study of economics will be felt for many years. A conference and memorial will be held September 28 to 29, 2013, at the Mason Inn.

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