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Friday, December 1, 1989

Book Review: Economics: Between Predictive Science and Moral Philosophy by James M. Buchanan


Compiled with a preface by Robert D. Tollison and Viktor J. Van-berg, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas 778434354 • 1987 * 413 pages • $48.50 cloth.

A good economist will make one important theoretical contribution to his field in a lifetime of work. There are few individuals of this intellectual caliber. Far rarer is the economist who has written extensively and productively on a broad range of theoretical and practical issues, often crossing official boundaries into other academic disciplines. James Buchanan is such an economist.

In his distinguished career, Professor Buchanan has written extensively on the economics of public finance, welfare economics, the economics of cost and individual choice, economic methodology, and political philosophy. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work in the field of “public choice,” which revolutionized the way mainstream economists look at and evaluate the political decision-making process.

For the serious student interested in learning more about Buchanan’s work, this book is a great place to start. It is a collection of previously published essays and journal articles that brings together a broad, well-rounded sampling of Buchanan’s most important contributions to economics and political philosophy.

A student and protégé of Frank Knight at the University of Chicago, Buchanan reflects an eclectic mix of ideas borrowed from Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, G. L. S. Shackle, and others. Austrian economists in particular will find them: selves sympathetic with Buchanan’s primary goal of reviving and extending the study of political economy in the tradition of the 18th-century Scottish moral philosophers.

But Buchanan is still a neoclassical economist who often defends the orthodox tendencies to test, measure, and predict empirically. For example, he maintains that there is a strict dichotomy between the realm of “reactive” choice, where he views man’s actions as analogous to the reactions of rats, and the realm of true creative choice in the Austrian sense. He argues: “. . . Misesian praxeology, as I understand it, would seem to include both examples within the realm of human action that theory seeks to analyze and to explain. I submit, however, that they are categorically distinct. [Reactive] action need not reflect conscious, active, or creative choice; it can be interpreted as an animal-like response to a change in the external environment. It is . . . behavior that might have been scientifically predicted.”

Always challenging, often frustrating, it is this essential tension, the rift “between predictive science and moral philosophy,” that drives Buchanan’s system of thought. All the same, the reader will enjoy being introduced to one of the few truly original thinkers in economics today.
Matthew Kibbe is a doctoral student in economics at George Mason University and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Market Processes.


  • Matt Kibbe is a leading advocate for personal, civil and economic liberties. An economist by training, Kibbe is a public policy expert, bestselling author and political commentator. He served as Senior Advisor to Concerned American Voters, a Rand Paul Super PAC. He is also Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Austrian Economic Center in Vienna, Austria. He is a member of the FEE faculty network and cooperates in running Free the People