James M. Buchanan, the U.S. economist who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for applying the principles of economic self-interest to understand why politicians do what they do, has died. He was 93.
He died Wednesday at a hospital in Blacksburg, Va., according to the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where Buchanan was a distinguished professor emeritus of economics. No cause was given.
Buchanan was a pioneer in the field known as public-choice theory, which views government decisions through the personal interests of the bureaucrats and elected leaders who want to advance in their careers and win campaigns.
He summarized public choice as "politics without romance" and said it helps explain why established bureaucracies "tend to grow apparently without limit," why pork-barrel politics endure and why the tax system is defined by "the increasing number of special credits, exemptions and loopholes."
As Buchanan put it in "Liberty, Market and the State" (1986), politics is "a process within which individuals, with separate and potentially differing interests and values, interact for the purpose of securing individually valued benefits of cooperative effort."
He drew on the work of Knut Wicksell, the Swedish economist who studied to what degree different forms of parliamentary government spend money in line with the wishes of taxpayers.
The choice of Buchanan for the Nobel drew some criticism, in part because his area of study was a step away from traditional economics in the direction of political science.
Buchanan, writing in 1989, said he was surprised to be honored, "because I held myself, my work, and my affiliation, to be too far outside the mainstream both of my own discipline and the American academia."
James McGill Buchanan was born Oct. 3, 1919, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. His grandfather, John P. Buchanan, had been governor of Tennessee from 1891 to 1893.
He earned his undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University in 1940 and his master's from the University of Tennessee in 1941. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy on the staff of Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific fleet. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1948.
He taught at the University of Tennessee, Florida State University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and George Mason.
Buchanan and his wife, the former Ann Bakke, married in 1945. They had no children.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun