Method and Morals in Constitutional Economics

Part of the series Studies in Economic Ethics and Philosophy pp 66-77

A Creative Theorist in His Workshop: James M. Buchanan as a Positive Economist

  • William F. Shughart
  • , Robert D. Tollison

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As one of our friends once said, James M. Buchanan is a whole university in and of himself, or at least an economics department, a philosophy department, and a political science department combined in one person. Another way of putting this is to recognize that Buchanan has contributed to numerous literatures inside and outside of economics, so that characterizing his work or his methodological approach in general terms can be a little difficult at times. Depending on the time and the particular issue he is pursuing, Buchanan appears here and there in a variety of methodological modes. It is fair to say, however, that in the main Buchanan has worked as a normative economist — he has tried to use economic theory to increase the understanding of complex behavioral interactions, so as to enhance general agreement on mutually beneficial social arrangements. He is not a welfare economist or a utilitarian in the sense that he offers any prospects of ascertaining what is “best” for everyone, distinct from their own evaluations. Rather, he is a contractarian who seeks to find the ways and means by which people might cooperatively better themselves. This, at least, is the aspect of his work that Buchanan emphasizes, and that other scholars have stressed as well.