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Buchanan sitting at table with microphone and talking off of notes.
James Buchanan taking part in the 2009 Pamplin College of Business BB&T Distinquished Lecture Series.

Legends: James Buchanan

Economics’ James Buchanan won 1986 Nobel Prize

James Buchanan won the 1986 Nobel Prize in economic science for his work as the architect of public choice theory. Buchanan connected people’s decision making process within the political theater — voting, lobbying, campaigning for conservative, liberal, etc., causes  — to the same principles used to interpret people’s decisions in a market setting. 

Buchanan joined the Department of Economics in 1969 where he founded the Center for Study of Public Choice and his work, including more than 30 books, argued for smaller government, lower deficits, and fewer regulations.

Buchanan’s approach to economics held that people matter as individuals, not as aggregates or collectives, and that the behavior of individuals is substantially self-interested. 

Buchanan’s history was rich. His grandfather, John Price Buchanan, was governor of Tennessee from 1891 to 1893. Buchanan graduated first in his class from what is now Middle Tennessee State University in 1940 and earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Tennessee in 1941. He was commissioned in the U.S. Navy and served in World War II on the staff of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander. He later earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1948.

Buchanan left Virginia Tech for George Mason University in 1983. After receiving his Nobel prize, he said, “I have faced a sometimes lonely and mostly losing battle of ideas for some 30 years now in efforts to bring academic economists’ opinions into line with those of the man on the street.”

In 1998, Buchanan returned to Virginia Tech as a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics and Philosophy. Here, he organized and financed a lecture series, workshops, and a symposia, and supported the department’s annual fund. He died in 2013.