August 23, 2021

James Buchanan on the Use of Science

Peter J. Boettke

Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics

"What a science does, or should do, is simply to allow the average man, through professional specialization, to command the heights of genius." - James Buchanan

This description of the power of economics by Buchanan has always struck me as insightful.  Economics is a tool for the curious.  Properly understood, economics is not a tool for the power seeking and those who want to govern over others, though that is what the transformation of "economic science" turned the discipline into with a false view of science and an inappropriate understanding of democratic governance in the unholy alliance of statism and scientism that was the progressive era that still haunts our discipline to this day.

As a tool for the curious, economic properly understood enables us to make sense of the senseless.  One can distinguish between the "natural economist" and the "properly trained economist".  Just as in athletic endeavors, it is very helpful to be both a natural economist and a properly trained economist -- hard work beats talent, when talent fails to work hard and all of that.  At GMU, I have had the good fortune to work with some amazingly talented properly trained economists over the years: Ed Stringham, Virgil Storr, Ben Powell, Scott Beaulier, Pete Leeson, and Chris Coyne to name a few that have proven their talents now over a 20 year period of active teaching, scholarly and academic entrepreneurship.  And, this list could continue to include names that would quadruple that total if I included younger scholars who received their PhDs after 2010 or even after 2020.  Natural economists who have been properly trained, and thus specialize in making sense of the senseless.

Economics as a tool for the curious yield social understanding, not social control. And, it in fact demonstrates why efforts at social control so often result in sad and tragic outcomes.  Let me point just to the work of two of the scholars I mention above.  I am particular drawn to use them to illustrate because next week we will have our PhD orientation for our PhD fellowship students and it will be the 20th anniversary of the date when Pete Leeson and Chris Coyne sat in those seats.  Pete's work has specialized in making sense of the senseless in human history -- from Pirates, to Ordeals, to  Witch Trials. And all find stunning parallels in our modern world of governmental practice.  Law, politics and society all are examined in Leeson's work through the lens of a "natural economist" -- the result is a deeper understanding of the human condition.

I was prompted to write this entry not only because of the 20th anniversary, but because of the images we have been confronted with about events in Afghanistan and our daily information overload about Covid, the CDC and the FDA.  All these events are senseless in a fundamental way, and we cannot help but think WHY, or as Leeson might put it WTF?!  So to our rescue, let me point to the natural economist who is properly trained -- in this instance, Chris Coyne.  In After War, Coyne details the deplorable record of US led military efforts at "nation building", and makes sense of that record with an examination of the systemic incentives and knowledge problems that the task at hand must wrestle with.  In Doing Bad By Doing Good, Coyne further explores in systematic way the difficulties bureaucracies face in tackling even well defined tasks, let alone complex tasks with ambiguous and amorphous goals.

Government messaging and signaling that invokes fear rather than rational calculation of trade-offs; bureaucratic bottle-necks that cause delays and missed opportunities; the tragic inability of even humanitarian efforts to be successful, let alone the utter dismay at the failed effort at nation building that resulted not in freedom and prosperity but instead in an expensive collapse into a new era of tyranny and oppression, are explained in efficient and effective prose in the works of Leeson and Coyne.

So if GMU -- Masonomics -- has done anything consistently over its history -- from the early 1980s when its PhD program was formed to the most recent graduating class, it has tried to be a place that cultivates the talents of the natural economist through proper training so they they as ordinary individuals with the aid of economic science can too rise to the heights of an observational genius. And in so doing, make sense of the senseless that we see everyday out our windows, on our computers and TV screens, or read in the news or on our cellphones with Twitter and other social media.  The animal trials Leeson talks about have nothing on us with the bizarre and strange patterns of human behavior we can see not in exotic lands from afar, but right downtown in Washington, DC in the halls of congress, the pentagon, and the White House, and in state houses of government across the land.  Just remember scarcity and trade-offs; choices and constraints; systematic incentives and knowledge problems; and think through these consistently and persistently in understanding human behavior in all walks of life be it commerce, politics, law, religion, etc.