One of our age’s most important thinkers passed away yesterday. The economist James M. Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 and was, among other things, a path-breaking intellectual entrepreneur and an inspiration for generations of scholars. He also helped develop a rigorous body of theory and evidence that helps us understand why pleasant political daydreams often create actual social nightmares. Specifically, Buchanan’s research agenda was one of “politics without romance,” as discussed by Donald J. Boudreaux in today’s Wall Street Journal.

In short, Buchanan, along with coauthors like Gordon Tullock, Geoffrey Brennan, Richard Wagner, and others, helped develop a branch of inquiry that helps us understand politics and markets by considering people as they actually are rather than as we can imagine them to be in our visions of a perfect world. He was an exemplar of what the economist Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision.” Human nature was given, not something to be changed. Political actors exhibited this same human nature, and any discussion of political institutions had to take seriously our moral and cognitive limitations as well as the fact that people respond to incentives.

The implications for government are clear. As Boudreaux notes in his Wall Street Journal appreciation, Buchanan saw the fundamental problems of social cooperation as problems of identifying and implementing constraints that would channel self-interest toward socially beneficial results rather than parts of a project of remaking human nature. As I recall the economist Michael Munger saying at a seminar several years ago (and I paraphrase), the question we should ask about a policy is not “what would ideal, perfectly public-spirited leaders do” but “what would actual politicians who actually get elected do?” These questions are parts of Buchanan’s formidable intellectual legacy.

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