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James M. Buchanan, RIP

Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan has died at the age of 93.

Buchanan thought of himself as a classical liberal and an Austrian economist — but neither a leftist nor an anarchist. But that doesn’t mean left-wing market anarchists don’t have important lessons to learn from him, particularly with regard to two of his most important contributions to social theory.

First, Buchanan pioneered public choice analysis — looking at the behavior of institutional actors, and especially state actors, as ordinary people with ordinary motivations who don’t acquire new fundamental values and attitudes and goals simply because they occupy particular positions. Public choice analysis emphasizes the fact that there’s no reason to expect politicians and other state functionaries to be more “public-spirited” than their counterparts in the corporate sector (and perhaps even less so, given the difficulty of measuring their performance and holding them accountable).

Embracing public choice analysis is, in particular, quite compatible with seeing politicians and bureaucrats as acting in light of motives as shaped by their cronyish relationships with business elites or, indeed, their ability to maximize their own wealth using political power. Public choice analysis isn’t identical with class analysis, not least because the latter assumes not merely that politicians’ motives aren’t any better than ordinary people’s, but, in fact, that they’re worse, for predictable reasons. But the two are naturally complementary. Public choice analysis points to one way in which the state functions as a tool of economic redistribution — not from the rich to the poor, but from everyone, including the poor, to the privileged. Buchanan’s notion that politics should be viewed “without romance” helps to make clear why the hope that the state will save ordinary people from the predatory corporate elite is naïve at best. A one-time self-described socialist, who remembered the arbitrary preference given to people with wealth during his time in the military during World War II, Buchanan could hardly be displeased by this result.

Second, Buchanan called attention to the importance of constitutional constraints on the exercise of state power. His work in constitutional economics focused on, among other things, the logic of institutional design—on the formulation of rules for political decision-making that could be expected to yield desirable economic outcomes. His own work employed a broadly contractarian approach to the justification of a state with limited powers. But it could certainly be taken in a more radical direction. When he rehearsed his Nobel acceptance speech at George Mason University, he observed, in the course of responding to criticism from his audience, “If this argument fails, I’m an anarchist.” And, precisely in light of his own concerns about the potential abuse of state power, there’s a plausible case to be made for the view that the right sort of constitutional order, the sort capable of fostering prosperity and protecting autonomy, is a polycentric one: market anarchism is the best sort of constitutionalism. It is perfectly possible to argue, building on Buchanan’s own analyses of the behavior of state officials and of the logic of constitutionalism, that the best way to constrain state rapacity is, as a number of Buchanan’s students have argued, by doing without the state altogether.

Buchanan’s elegant and careful analyses were not the last word on public choice or constitutional economics. From a left-wing market anarchist perspective, they were insufficiently critical of the status quo. But they paved the way for more radical analyses of the political and legal order, analyses which will doubtless continue to be enriched by Buchanan’s own.