March, 2020

The real purpose of the program

a case study in James M. Buchanan’s efforts at academic entrepreneurship to “save the books” in economics
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Using archival material from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Political Economy and first-person recollections from relevant figures, we reconstruct James M. Buchanan’s mission (in partnership with G. Warren Nutter) to “save the books” in the related but distinct disciplines of economics and political economy. From his graduate days at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, Buchanan was worried about dominant trends in mainstream economics which would carry the field away from its core. In particular, Buchanan was worried that political economy was becoming unmoored from the types of philosophic and institutional analysis which were previously central to the field. In its flight from reality, Buchanan feared economics was in danger of abandoning social-philosophic issues for exclusively technical questions. More than this, Buchanan feared that economists were asserting their authority as benevolent social planners. In response to these fears, Buchanan sought to (re)create an economics which would balance the science of economics and the art of political economy—an economics which began with an explicit commitment to democracy and would integrate philosophy, institutional thinking, and technical, price-theoretic economics, into a coherent working paradigm for research and graduate education.