How James Buchanan came to George Mason University.

Author:Vaughn, Karen I.
  1. Introduction

    James Buchanan is well known as a major contributor to the economics profession. As the author of seminal works such as The Calculus of Consent (with Gordon Tullock, 1962), Public Principles of Public Debt (1958), The Limits of Liberty (1975), and The Reason of Rules (with Geoffrey Brennan, 1985), he was a cofounder of the field of public choice, and he was the founder of the field of constitutional economics. So important was his work that in 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics "for his development of contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic decision-making."

    While most professional economists recognize the importance of Buchanan's place in late twentieth century economics, fewer are aware of another important aspect of his career. In addition to being a formidable thinker and a prolific writer, he was also an institution builder par excellence. He had a knack for creating spaces where other like-minded scholars would be eager to join him in pursuing their mutual research interests. While at the University of Virginia from 1956 through 1968, he and Warren Nutter founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy, a center that hosted some of the brightest lights in the classical liberal tradition. After publication of The Calculus of Consent, he cofounded the Public Choice Society to further the research program, serving as its first president in 1964. After a brief stint at UCLA, in 1969 he moved to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. There, he was instrumental in founding the Public Choice Center, which became, for a time, the mecca for all interested in working in that field. Each of these organizations formed a hub of creativity in which their members' work was enriched by their proximity to other like minds. Then, in 1983, he moved the center to George Mason University, where he, perhaps inadvertently, continued institution building. In this case, however, the institution he was instrumental in building was the university itself. How that move came about, and its far-reaching consequences for the economics department and for the university as a whole, is a story worth telling.

    This is the story of how a chance remark set off an unlikely chain of events that began the transformation of a poor and unknown university, in fewer than three decades, into a the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The story is an example of how luck, entrepreneurial alertness at the departmental level, and vision and determination by the higher administration combined to bring about an academic coup in one discipline that started the school on a growth trajectory that benefited its entire academic program. It is the story of how James Buchanan came to spend the last three decades of his career at George Mason University.

  2. The Move to Fairfax

    When I first met Jim Buchanan in the late 1970s, the Center for Study of Public Choice was located at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, housed in a beautiful old mansion in the middle of a bucolic campus. Its physical location seemed ideal in that it provided...

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