Thursday, January 10, 2013

Thank you, Jim

A number of people have written tributes to James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize winning economist largely responsible, with his colleague Gordon Tullock, for public choice theory, the application of economics to politics. As it happens, I owe two debts to him, and it seems an appropriate occasion to acknowledge them.

One debt is for the role he played in my becoming an economist. After I got a doctorate in physics and spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow, I decided to switch fields. Julius Margolis, who ran the Fels Institute of Government at Penn and had seen some of my work, invited me to come there. I spent two years as a post-doc at Penn, a third as a lecturer; during that time I wrote my first econ journal article, an economic theory of the size and shape of nations published in the JPE. 

At some point I met Jim and discovered that we had somewhat similar ideas about applying economics to political behavior, the subject of my article and large volumes of his work. He invited me to come to VPI as an assistant professor of economics. During the next four years, I suspect as a result of his deliberate policy, I taught a wide range of courses, more or less the whole curriculum. Teaching things is a good way of learning them. That, a large chunk of my shift into economics, is one debt.

The other started even earlier. My first book, The Machinery of Freedom, received only one good review—where I define a good review not as a friendly one but as a review which makes the author think. Jim wrote it. A significant part of what will go into the third edition of that book is my response to a problem he pointed out with my exposition and analysis of a system of privately produced law. Readers who do not feel like waiting for the third edition can find the problem, and the response, in several of my webbed talks, including one I gave last year at Buchanan house at George Mason University.

Jim, by then, had retired, so was not at GMU to hear the talk. I planned at some point to send him a link to the recording, or somewhere else where I responded. But I never got around to it. 

And now I can't.


Unknown said...

Did you see the tweet that Matthew Yglesias wrote?

It's sickening to have a man like this take a pot shot as a renowned economist the day of his death in my opinion.

Love your blog by the way. I've been asking various economists around the Blogsophere what economics books I should read if I want a much better grasp on the subject as a young, 18 year old layman, and I've gotten a lot of varied answers. I just wanted to know what you would recommend to a guy like me who loves to engage in autodidacticism and self directed learning. I already feel like I've read quite a lot more on the subject than the average person, but I want to keep going. Even as a cartoonist, I believe that knowing about economics is one of the most important things anyone who cares about the state of the country should do.

David Friedman said...

My (not unbiased) response is to recommend my Hidden Order. Alternatively, you could save some money by reading my Price Theory, which is webbed on my site. The former book is basically the latter rewritten to convert it from a textbook to a book aimed at the intelligent layman who wants to understand economics. I think the rewrite improved the book, but the content is pretty much the same.

Anonymous said...

This is totally off topic concerning James Buchannan, but I wanted to have professor Friedman weigh in on something. A few years ago you had a talk about public key encryption making it possible to be anonymous online, making the black market available to almost everyone. This seems to already have happened.There is a black market website, mostly used to sell cannabis, called SilkRoad that uses an anonymous network (tor project), encryption, and digital currency (bitcoin). I was wondering if you had heard of it, or have any thoughts on it.

Benjamin. said...

Wait, so were you not educated in economics? Or did you study physics and economics?

I don't know much about how higher education and graduate school works.

David Friedman said...

1. I do not know about SilkRoad. I know a little about bitcoins.

2. I did not take any courses in economics. Courses are not the only way of getting educated.

Todd Moodey said...

Professor Friedman, what did your father think of Professor Buchanan's work? Monetary policy and the Fed seem like such a clear area of application for Public Choice.


(btw, if you don't like answering questions about what your father might have thought of this or that, I certainly understand.)

David Friedman said...


I'm afraid I don't remember my father commenting on Buchanan's work, although I expect he would have approved of it.

Unknown said...


In response to your father commenting on Buchanan's work, I direct you to this speech he gave to a California Libertarian Party meeting:

Fast forward to 1:02:10 where an audience member asks him specifically about Buchanan's work. He says that he agrees completely with Buchanan's public choice perspective and has himself learned a great deal from Buchanan.

Dick White said...

Response to Benjamin:
"Wait, so were you not educated in economics?"

From "Two Lucky People":

[From Rose Friedman]: "...David decided that he would rather spend his life as an economist than a physicist, and managed to get a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to enable him to convert to economics and supplement his dinner table education."