How much freedom should politicians have?

James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, 1986


At a glance

Born: 1919, Tennessee, USA

Died: 2013, Virginia, USA

Field: Public finance

Awarded: The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, 1986

Prize-winning work: Development of the contractual and constitutional basis for the economic and political decision-making theory

Have you ever wondered how politicians take a decision? Do they always have the public's best interest at heart? Or do their own interests creep in and muddy the waters? Starting out as a public finance economist, James Buchanan was fascinated by this subject and soon strayed from traditional economics. He began to explore the way politicians make decisions on tax and spending in particular, and realized that ignoring human nature was the reason politics didn't always work as predicted.

Thanks to Buchanan, a new field of economics called 'Public Choice' was born, which transformed the whole structure of political decision making. It helped decide how constitutional rules should be changed, and how much power politicians should be given to guide them in making more 'human' decisions.

What does Buchanan's work mean for us?


"Thanks to James Buchanan, we can think seriously about why democracy works but also why it will never be perfect."

Tim Harford
Financial Times columnist and author of The Undercover Economist


"Economic models tended to assume a utopian state, governed by benevolent economist guardians with the greater good as their only objective. Buchanan highlighted the absurdity of this."

Paul Donovan
Global Chief Economist UBS Wealth Management

James M. Buchanan on…

Chance in the creative process

Not getting overwhelmed with information

"All of a sudden I realized that everything we'd learned about public debt in graduate school was wrong."

From Buchanan's personal collection

Replica of his Nobel medal

Buchanan's robes for formal academic occasions at George Mason University

A closer look at the ideas

How could the government be more legitimized?

How could Switzerland function as a role model for the European Union?

How much taxing power should be granted to governments?

How should liberty be enforced?

Who are the grandfathers of public choice?

More Nobel Perspectives

What makes good policy?

Finn E. Kydland
Nobel Laureate, 2004

Can we make risk less risky in the financial world?

Harry M. Markowitz
Nobel Laureate, 1990

Keep up to date

To stay in the loop as new Nobel Perspectives are released, sign up for our email alerts.