Buchanan's Tensions

Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of James M. Buchanan

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Published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in the Tensions in Political Economy series.

James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate in Economics and one of the premier political economists of the 20th century, was at the heart of the emergence of public choice theory and the reintroduction of politics to academic economic analysis. Like any great and productive scholar, his body of work includes tensions, flaws, and inconsistencies that must be confronted by scholars looking to engage, critique, and advance his distinctive project in political economy.

Buchanan’s work is important but also open for contestation and improvement. Buchanan’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of James M. Buchanan presents a critical assessment of Buchanan’s research and ideas. The contributions to this edited volume, which include original chapters by several of Buchanan’s coauthors and students, identify sources of tension within his writing. The book’s key takeaway is that the research program Buchanan developed continues as an open-ended project, both as a social scientific approach and as a classical liberal political vision of constitutional order, rather than a static dogma or fruitless dead end. Taken as a whole, this volume identifies important questions and areas for future research by the next generation of constitutional political economists.

“Philosophers see imperatives; a tension between imperatives is a ‘contradiction.’ Economists see goals; tensions among goals are ‘trade-offs.’ James Buchanan, as an economist writing philosophy, can be hard to understand. This marvelous book immediately becomes the single essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Buchanan’s enormous contributions and his equally significant failures.”
—Michael C. Munger

“Scholars have attended to Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan’s economics and public choice theory. Until now, they have given too little attention to Buchanan’s political philosophy. Boettke and Stein have edited an important, engaging, and highly readable book on this topic.”
—Barry R. Weingast

“A new Tensions in Political Economy series begins by engaging the extraordinarily broad sweep of Buchanan’s thought, stressing the primacy he assigned to individuals in collective choice processes and situating his work in the context of the 20th century’s scholarly milieu and the ever-expanding state to which orthodoxy gave rise.”
—William F. Shughart II

“Buchanan’s Tensions, edited by Peter J. Boettke and Solomon Stein, offers an informative and timely contribution to the scholarly literature on James M. Buchanan. Contributors celebrate Buchanan’s legacy by exposing solvable and irreconcilable tensions in Buchanan’s copious writings.”
S. M. Amadae



Peter J. Boettke & Solomon M. Stein

Chapter 1: Buchanan's Liberal Theory of Political Economy
Richard E. Wagner

Chapter 2: Buchanan on Ethics and Self-Interest in Politics
Roger D. Congleton

Chapter 3: Constitutional Hopes and Post-Constitutional Fears
Peter J. Boettke & Jayme S. Lemke

Chapter 4: Can Consent Limit Liberty?
Randall G. Holcombe

Chapter 5: Unreasonableness and Heterogeneity in Buchanan's Constitutional Project
Stefanie Haeffele & Virgil Henry Storr

Chapter 6: It Can't Be Rational Choice All the Way Down
Gerald Gaus

Chapter 7: The Protective State
Christopher J. Coyne

Chapter 8: Limits on the Application of Motivational Homogeneity in the Work of Buchanan and the Virginia School
David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart