In contrast, those of us who were educated at left-leaning institutions learn almost nothing about Buchanan. There, he is (was) that right-wing guy who was a big proponent of public choice theory. He is treated as a shallow thinker whose claim to fame is treating government officials as self-interested.
In fact, Buchanan is one of the few economists who I credit with thinking more deeply than I do. (Yes, this reveals a lot about my self-regard. My egotistical view of the world is that other economists forego philosophical rigor in exchange for mathematical precision.)
To see what I mean about Buchanan, go to the library of economics and liberty and read Cost and Choice. (Note that you get to the contents of the book by clicking on the links over on the left. Or you can purchase the book relatively inexpensively.) Here is an excerpt (from the beginning of chapter three), to see what you are getting into.
A century has elapsed since the subjective-value revolution in economic theory, but the subjective theory of value has not been fully reconciled with the classically derived objective theory. As the notes on the development of the concept of opportunity cost indicate, economists have not drawn carefully the distinction between a predictive or scientific theory and a logical theory of economic interaction. As subsequent chapters will demonstrate, this methodological confusion is the source of pervasive error in applied economics. The treatment and discussion of cost, especially in its relation to choice, provides a usefully specific context within which the more general methodological issues can be examined.
…The following specific implications emerge from this choice-bound conception of cost:
1. Most importantly, cost must be borne exclusively by the decision-maker; it is not possible for cost to be shifted to or imposed on others.
2. Cost is subjective; it exists in the mind of the decision-maker and nowhere else.
3. Cost is based on anticipations; it is necessarily a forward-looking or ex ante concept.
4. Cost can never be realized because of the fact of choice itself: that which is given up cannot be enjoyed.
5. Cost cannot be measured by someone other than the decision-maker because there is no way that subjective experience can be directly observed.
6. Finally, cost can be dated at the moment of decision or choice.
I like to wrestle with these sorts of topics, but, for better or worse, my goal in writing is to bring them down to a layman’s level, as in my essay on subjective value.
Anyway, the point should not be to talk about me. What strikes me about James Buchanan is that, apart from the libertarian fringe, no economists attempt to appreciate the depth of his thought. I find that sad and disturbing.