In memoriam: James M. Buchanan, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics and Philosophy
January 10, 2013
James M. Buchanan, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner in economic science, and long-time professor at Virginia Tech died Wednesday at Lewis Gale Hospital at Montgomery in Blacksburg. He was 93.
In accordance with his wishes, there will be no services or visitation.
Buchanan arrived at Virginia Tech in 1969 where he founded the Center for Study of Public Choice and his work, including more than 30 books, made the case for smaller government, lower deficits, and fewer regulations.
According to Nicolaus Tideman, professor of economics and head of the College of Science’s Department of Economics, Buchanan was a scholar and a gentleman with whom exchanging ideas was an experience that “advanced my own thinking.”
Buchanan’s approach to economics had the assumptions that people matter as individuals, not as aggregates or collectives; that the behavior of individuals is substantially self-interested; and to make progress, it is important to take account of the reasonable expectations that have arisen from shared history.
“When looking for ways to improve the world, he would always ask, "What might we do that would come as close as possible to making everyone better off?” Thus, he looked for ways to blunt the consequences of selfishness in public institutions and turn government into a closer approximation to a system of voluntary exchange,” Tideman recalled.
Aris Spanos, the Wilson Schmidt Professor of Economics, hosted Buchanan at his home for Christmas in December and said, "I have seen publications describing Jim as 'forbidding' and lacking 'a warm personality' but that is not the person I got to know and admire," he said. "Jim became a regular visitor at my house, spending most holidays with my family. On one occasion in 2003 when asked about the best restaurant in Blacksburg, he replied in all seriousness, 'Evie's'. He then felt obliged to explain, "That's Aris's house."
A native of Tennessee, Buchanan was born Oct. 3, 1919, to James and Lila Buchanan. His grandfather, John Price Buchanan, was governor of Tennessee from 1891 to 1893. He graduated first in his class from Middle Tennessee State Teachers College in 1940 and earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Tennessee in 1941. He commissioned in the U.S. Navy and served in World War II on the staff of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1948.
Buchanan left Virginia Tech for George Mason University in 1983 and continued to write on conservative economic policy. After receiving his Nobel prize, he said, “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. My task has been to ‘uneducate’ the economists.”
In 1998, the Nobel Laureate returned to Virginia Tech as University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics and Philosophy, where he contributed in a variety of ways including organizing and financing a series of lectures (James M. Buchanan annual lectures), workshops, and symposia.
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.