Thursday, January 17, 2013

Buchanan's lasting lesson

I was very sorry to hear of the death last week of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan of Blacksburg. Frequent readers might recall I discussed this fascinating man in a couple of columns last summer. He was not only an accomplished scholar, but was also perhaps the last veteran of Adm.Chester Nimitz's staff in World WarII.

I wish I could say he and I were close friends, but in truth I only spoke with him a handful of times. Still, I certainly developed enormous respect for Buchanan. I last saw him in November, when I arranged for him to speak in Salem on his World War II career. As the generation that won the last world war dwindles in numbers, we should relish the opportunity to learn from their experiences, and very few are left who rubbed elbows with the top brass as did he.

Of course, all of the obituaries concentrated on his academic career, not his few years in the Navy. He is best known, and earned his Nobel Prize, for his pioneering work in the field of economics called public choice. I don't claim expertise in this field, so I'll defer to Buchanan's famous description of public choice as "politics without romance." We'd all like to pretend that government is a knight in shining armor ready to swoop in and solve all of our problems, valiantly and selflessly. But public choice uses economic scrutiny to demonstrate that government officials, elected or unelected, are (like us) individuals who act in their own interest.

For these reasons, Buchanan (in opposition to many colleagues in the Ivory Tower) advocated limited government, free markets, balanced budgets and the healthy suspicion of government that is part of the American genetic code.

Since making his acquaintance, I often wondered on his take on current affairs, but when we chatted, it was usually about history. I wish I'd had the chance to discuss with him my amateur observations on the cereal aisle. Years ago, I read something about defectors from the Soviet Union. The CIA, or whatever agency was in charge of such things, would take them first to see a typical American grocery store. The defectors would be amazed at the variety of food available to the average person — dozens of affordable breakfast cereals, for instance. They were accustomed to a few government-issued choices only.

Now, who decided which cereals would go in that impressive aisle? How many varieties? Who determined that the kids' cereal with little marshmallows would outsell the granola where the raisins turn to unchewable pellets in cold milk? The answer is no one, and all of us. In a free market, these decisions are made by an "invisible hand" that generally works, without guidance, for the good of all participants.

Imagine that the government took over the management of the cereal aisle. Would it be better or worse? Someone might decide we all should eat more oat bran and, much to my son's chagrin, little colorful marshmallows would no longer be available. Some bureaucrat would have to administer the production, distribution and processing of oats, the printing of boxes and the amount of milk and number of spoons needed in Milwaukee this April. What once happened automatically and to the benefit of all would become a cumbersome process. And who would benefit?

While the bureaucrat, and the elected officials who empower him, might couch their actions in the language of the commonweal, public choice analysis would reveal they have their own motives and interests. Job security, helping out supporters in the bran industry, winning ballots from the anti-marshmallow voters — these factors come into play, often to the detriment of the public interest.

Or as Buchanan wrote: "There is no means by which even the most idealized omniscient designer could duplicate the results of voluntary interchange."

But, you might object, we'd all be better off. Bran flakes are better for us all than those hyper-sweetened, pastel-colored marshmallow clovers. Perhaps. But how much freedom to choose do we sacrifice to have the government make this call for us?

And this is why I'm afraid James Buchanan might someday be known by a different appellation, one I'm sure he'd reject: prophet. As government expands, and it seems for the moment most Americans want it to keep expanding, it can only mean surrendering more of our private choices to a cadre of administrators whose human nature dictates that they will follow their own interests, not ours.

Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.

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