George Mason University hosted a weekend long celebration of the scholarship of the late James M. Buchanan.
Many of Buchanan's former colleagues and students from UVa, VPI, and GMU spoke. My talk was on "What Should Classical Liberal Political Economists Do?" I started my talk by reflecting on the great opportunity that I had to be Buchanan's student during my time at GMU in the early to mid 1980s. I described him as <1> a great teacher/scholar who constantly asked questions and challenged the conventional wisdom, yet insisted that aspiring economists learn in detail the basic principles of economics -- most significantly opportunity cost reasoning, and the theory of spontaneous order of the market economy; <2> a believer in deep and enduring committment to a paradigmatic agenda, and in this sense that commitment made him dogged in his approach, but never dogmatic; and <3> that his great genius as a teacher was to convince students that his scholarly success was a function of hard work, and not pure smarts ... in contrast with my other teachers -- Kenneth Boulding and Gordon Tullock --- Buchanan made you believe that academic success was all about persperiation rather than inspiration. Yet, of course, this impression was wrong, Buchanan was indeed a genius, and had a deep commitment to excellence. He did indeed have an amazing work ethic, but he also had unparalleled talent in the field of political economy. Hard work may beat talent when talent fails to work hard, but when talent is combined with hard work -- the result is indeed sustained and amazing greatness. James Buchanan was indeed such a case.
One final point about Buchanan as a teacher that I must emphasize. He never once attempted to embarrass a student in class, instead he would take whatever silly utterance a student made and turn it into a brilliant insight and a teachable moment. I have a phrase from a Chinese fortune cookie taped to be office door -- The wise man learns more from the fool, then the fool will ever learn from the wise man. I put this up on my door because it reminded me of Buchanan's teaching approach, and a model I would like to follow (however I am unfortunately neither as smart nor as disciplined).
I thought the celebration was wonderful, and that Roger Congleton did an outstanding job organizing the program, and that Alex Tabarrok, Dan Houser and the hard work of Jo Ann Burgess and Sarah Oh all are to be thanked.