James Buchanan and the Soul of Classical Liberalism

“We true liberals are failing to save the soul of classical liberalism,” wrote James M. Buchanan, the Nobel-prize-winning economist, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on New Year’s Day in 2000. He urged his fellow scholars—”we, those who teach liberalism”—to focus less on pragmatic arguments for liberalism and more on reminding the world of the liberal ideal: a society free of coercion “in which all participants are free to choose.”

James Buchanan

Buchanan, the founder of the Center for Public Choice at George Mason University, had by then been teaching for almost fifty years. Born in Tennessee in 1919, he got his PhD from the University of Chicago after serving in the Navy in Hawaii during World War II then joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1956. After stints at UCLA and Virginia Tech, where he initially founded the Center for Public Choice, Buchanan moved to George Mason University in 1983. Two years later the Institute for Humane Studies also relocated to George Mason.

 James Buchanan and IHS were natural partners. Buchanan’s work on public choice revolutionized the world’s understanding of political decision-making; and in his teaching and speaking, Buchanan had an even higher aim: to ignite enthusiasm—across multiple American generations—for the organizing principle of individual freedom. 

A ‘good society’ defined independent of the choices of its members, all members, is contradictory with a social order derived from individual values.
-James Buchanan in The Limits of Liberty

James Buchanan and the Soul of Classical Liberalism

Buchanan spoke at several IHS events and became a regular speaker at IHS Summer Seminars. At a 2005 Summer Seminar at the University of Virginia on Social Change, Buchanan gave a lecture on “Restoring the Spirit of Classical Liberalism.” In post-event surveys, students called Buchanan’s lecture “inspiring,” “intriguing,” “amazing,” and “strongly felt.”

Buchanan didn’t just inspire students; he also inspired new generations of economics professors. In his book The Four Pillars of Economic Understanding, George Mason University economics professor and IHS distinguished fellow Peter Boetkke wrote that Buchanan “taught us that the number one job of the economics teacher was to develop an appreciation in their students of the spontaneous order of the market so that our students could become informed participants in the democratic process of collective decision-making.” 

Buchanan class survey

“I am not worthy of commenting on Buchanan”
Student survey of Buchanan’s “Restoring the Spirit of Classical Liberalism”

Buchanan passed away in 2013 at the age of 93. But his words continue to be read and discussed in IHS discussion colloquia and Summer Seminars; and in an op-ed on New Year’s Day 2020, IHS president Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright reminded readers of Buchanan’s challenge: to save the soul of liberalism. 

“Twenty years later, Buchanan’s fears seem prescient,” Dr. Chamlee-Wright wrote.

Contempt for liberalism is growing at both ends of the ideological spectrum—from the nationalist right and progressive left. […] Now is the time for any liberals left to answer Buchanan’s challenge—to save the soul of liberalism by reclaiming the liberal ideal.
-Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright

This is the goal of any professor: to inspire others over a long career and continue to shape conversations after you’re gone. 

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, faculty partners, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60

You Might Also Like