Academic journal article Independent Review

Buchanan's Accounts of the Serendipitous Discovery of Wicksell: A Case of "Just What Was He Thinking" or

Academic journal article Independent Review

Buchanan's Accounts of the Serendipitous Discovery of Wicksell: A Case of "Just What Was He Thinking" or

Article excerpt

Over his long academic career, James Buchanan was fond of recounting to his graduate classes how he discovered Knut Wicksell's habilitation thesis Finanztheoretische Untersuchungen (hereafter FU) in a moment of serendipity. (1) But because the serendipity story also takes front stage in the introduction to his Nobel Prize speech, even those who have not had Buchanan as a teacher may be aware of its broad facts.

Although there is always a danger of claiming to know what other individuals think, I conjecture that most public-choice economists who know the story interpret the account along similar lines: Buchanan may have heard of Wicksell, but it was not until the summer of 1948, in a postdissertation reverie, that he first read FU. The overtone of the story is that without that serendipitous moment, the course of Buchanan's work might have been less bold and far-reaching--less exotic. Indeed, some economists see all of Buchanan's output even from the late 1940s and onward as a working out of the Wicksellian approach he discovered that summer. (2) Buchanan himself has often stated, however, that during the moment of serendipity he found Wicksell's lessons to be already implicit in his own thinking. Accordingly, the public-choice revolution, at least of the Buchanan ilk, would have taken place without the serendipitous moment. If so, then what purpose did telling and retelling the serendipity story serve?

In a recent paper on the early history of Buchanan's graduate education and public finance, Marianne Johnson (2014) has surprised us all by provocatively challenging central elements of Buchanan's own account. On Johnson's account, Buchanan did not literally experience a serendipitous moment by discovering Wicksell that summer of 1948. On the facts, there would seem to be no dispute to be made with Johnson's finding--anyone who now cares to follow her lead and read Buchanan's dissertation will find several quotations in German from Wicksell's habilitation. Johnson claims Buchanan's story is tainted by fbrgetfulness, poetic license to embellish the events, and revisionist history of the early course of public choice. In light of Johnson's seemingly unambiguous finding, one might be inclined to ask: Just what was Buchanan thinking when he recounted the story as an instance of serendipity when that claim seems to be so patendy false? How should we judge the seemingly clear lapse in Buchanan's scholarship? Or is the truth less clear-cut? In this essay, I attempt to sort out what one might make of the whole affair.

Buchanan's Account(s)

In order to appreciate fully the conventional account of the serendipity story, there is perhaps no better course than to refer to what Buchanan actually said about his serendipitous discovery of Wicksell. Around 2000, Geoffrey Brennan interviewed Buchanan. The interview was filmed and released a year later as part of Liberty Fund's Intellectual Portrait Series. The section dealing with the serendipity story is worth quoting in fuill because Buchanan offers additional details not given in previous or subsequent versions. In the absence of any official transcript of the filmed interview, here is my own transcription of Buchanan's response after Brennan asks him to retell the story of how he "met" Wicksell:

Well that is a familiar story if anybody has listened to me much because the dominant influences on my ... career and my thinking have been two, Frank Knight and Knut Wicksell. Frank Knight was my teacher and my role model and everything else. And Wicksell, I got through reading Wicksell. Knut Wicksell was, of course, a well-known Swedish economist, who was born, I believe, about 1851, died 1926, covering roughly that turn-of-the-century period. And as students at Chicago, as graduate students, we knew about Wicksell, but we did not know anything about him having written in public finance at all ... public economics. As it turns out, however, Wicksell had written his dissertation after . …

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