Randall Holcombe on Public Choice and Classical Liberal Community

The relationship between the free market and the invisible hand always intrigued Randall Holcombe, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. After reading The Calculus of Consent by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock as an undergraduate, Holcombe decided to pursue his graduate studies in economics at Virginia Tech, which at the time was home to the Center for Study of Public Choice. It was in the early 1970s during graduate school when Holcombe became familiar with the broader classical liberal tradition.

As an undergraduate, all of the people I knew who I felt fell into the intellectual class, they were all socialists. And so I thought, ‘well, that’s the intellectual position and free markets are more pragmatic.’ And when I got to graduate school, I ran into some of that classical liberal literature, and I was surprised to find such an academic foundation for those ideas.

– Randall Holcombe
Randall Holcombe
Randall Holcombe

While Holcombe was studying at Virginia Tech, Buchanan, Tullock, and others were developing ideas such as rent seeking and constitutional economics. Tullock had written an article on rent seeking in 1967, but Holcombe says that it did not catch on until 1974, when Anne Krueger published her own article on the subject. “I remember she came to Virginia Tech and presented that article in a seminar,” Holcombe said. “And those ideas really took off.”

Around the same time, Buchanan was working on his book The Limits of Liberty. Holcombe recalls encountering regular evening public choice seminars and learning more about constitutional economics there. “It was really an interesting, exciting place to be in the early 1970s,” Holcombe reflects. He says that Buchanan impacted him in two primary ways. The first was his academic influence in the realm of ideas, which Holcombe is committed to continuing.

I really do see myself as a student of Buchanan’s. I see things so much the same way that he does, and reading his work helps me to clarify my thought.

– Randall Holcombe
Randall Holcombe speaking at a discussion colloquium at Florida State University in 2018.

The second is his work ethic, which directly benefited Holcombe since Buchanan supervised his dissertation. Buchanan insisted that Holcombe submit each of his dissertation chapters to him for feedback and approval before approaching the rest of the committee. “The turnaround was so quick,” Holcombe said. “I would bring him a chapter: The next day, he would have feedback for me.”

Holcombe had other opportunities to meet other influential classical liberal economists during his graduate studies. One of his professors, Richard Wagner, knew that he was interested in the Austrian school of economics and told him about the upcoming 1974 IHS conference in South Royalton, Vermont. Holcombe applied to the IHS conference and was accepted. “That was the first thing that I did with IHS,” Holcombe said. “And it was a good introduction.”

At the South Royalton conference, Holcombe had the opportunity to meet established economists as well as other emerging scholars in the field. “There was a feeling of comradery there,” Holcombe said. The following year, he attended the 1975 IHS conference on Austrian economics in Hartford, Connecticut. There he met F. A. Hayek, who had recently won the Nobel Prize. “It had been announced that he won the Nobel Prize, so it was great to see Hayek and meet Hayek,” Holcombe said. “He’s one of my personal heroes, as is probably true of a lot of people.”

When Holcombe takes a step back, one common element of IHS programs that stands out to him is the community of scholars. For him, the most rewarding part of IHS programs is meeting with like-minded people who believe that smaller—rather than larger—government promotes growth and prosperity. “I think that the thing about the IHS programs that’s made the biggest difference to me is being in with a community of scholars with like interests,” Holcombe said.

Randall Holcombe with graduate students and IHS staff at a graduate research workshop in 2018.

You’re getting together a bunch of like-minded people who can sit down and talk with each other about their careers, about their ideas—about their academic ideas, as well as their ideas for improving society.

– Randall Holcombe

Holcombe has attended a variety of IHS programs, including graduate research workshops, as a faculty mentor. He hopes that graduate students will walk away from these programs feeling inspired and considering how classical liberal ideas can inform their research. He also enjoys presenting classical liberal ideas to undergraduates who may not be familiar with the tradition.

Many of his own graduate students have expressed an interest in classical liberal ideas. Holcombe finds it rewarding to work with them as colleagues on publishing research and encourage them in their career development.

Like Buchanan before him, Holcombe requires his graduate students to write a series of papers, not only to expose them to existing academic literature, but also to prepare them for building their own ideas off of current conversations.

When it comes to his own research, Holcombe’s contributions include developing ideas on cronyism and government control, as well as combining ideas of elite theory and public choice theory to explain not only how certain people benefit from special interests but also who benefits.

Holcombe has published a number of books, including his most recent titled Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History, which he describes as a public choice analysis of American political history. In the book, Holcombe examines the shift in society’s understanding of the fundamental idea of American government from liberty to democracy.

In another recent book, Political Capitalism: How Economic and Political Power Is Made and Maintained, he discusses cronyism and how the economic and political elite work together to further their own interests at the expense of the masses. While some claim that government oversight is the solution to cronyism, Holcombe argues that government intervention is actually the problem and that the free market promotes liberty and prosperity.

The most important lesson in economics is that you don’t have to plan out a social system to get an orderly and efficient outcome.

– Randall Holcombe

All of Holcombe’s work ties back to his initial fascination with public choice, the free market, and the invisible hand. One aspect of economics that impressed Holcombe from the very beginning, and continues to drive his research today, is that human self-interest can drive an economy without design or central control.

Despite living in a time when many prefer a big government over a free market, Holcombe is encouraged by the like-minded scholars he meets in the classical liberal community and at IHS events. IHS has been working alongside this community for sixty years and is proud to support such a rich community of scholars devoted to promoting the good society.

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

Randall Holcombe advising graduate students at a 2018 graduate research workshop.
IHS 60th Anniversary

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