Nobel economist is missed and remembered

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Cyril J. Morong

Cyril J. Morong

Fringe economist influenced professor’s education.

Guest Viewpoint by Cyril J. Morong

This past January, I was saddened to learn that a great prize-winning economist, James M. Buchanan Jr., died at the age of 93.

He received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986.

He was instrumental in  development of an area of economics called “public choice” (sometimes political economy), which uses economic analysis to study how government and the political system work.

His work had an enormous influence on me because I used the kinds of tools he helped create in my Ph.D. dissertation.

In it, I analyzed how both economic and ideological factors influenced congressional legislation during the Federalist period.

Not surprisingly, the economic factors often greatly affected how congressmen voted.

Ideological factors were sometimes significant, too, but usually on bills that did not have clear-cut economic winners and losers.

I may owe much of my professional life to Buchanan’s work.

His best-known book might be “The Calculus of Consent.” He and co-author Gordon Tullock showed that selfish politicians will not always act in the public interest.

Buchanan was very concerned with how constitutions are written because they determine how politicians behave and, therefore, determine the outcomes and effects of policy.

He worried politicians have incentives to promise benefits to voters right before elections while also promising tax cuts or to keep taxes from rising.

This could potentially lead to big deficits and then a large national debt.

These are certainly issues on the minds of Americans now.

He blamed the debt problems partly on British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas still loom large in teaching economics in college.

Because he saw all the ways that politicians could make things worse, he was a proponent of small government, not a popular view on college campuses today.

One source said his respect for individuals led him to favor limitations on the size and power of the state.

According to The New York Times, “He joined the Navy, became an officer and served in World War II on the staff of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander.”

So Buchanan had a Texas connection as Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg.

I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Buchanan once at the annual meetings of The Public Choice Society, an organization founded by Buchanan and Tullock. He was very down-to-earth for a giant in his field.

The Times finished his obituary, “I have faced a sometimes lonely and mostly losing battle of ideas for some 30 years now in efforts to bring academic economists’ opinions into line with those of the man on the street,” he said.

“My task has been to ‘uneducate’ the economists.”

Cyril J. Morong is a professor of economics at this college.


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