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Nobel Prize economist James Buchanan dies

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Nobel economics laureate and MTSU alumnus James Buchanan speaks to graduates at the May 2000 commencement ceremony held at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Buchanan, 93, died Jan. 9, 2013, in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of MTSU News)

Nobel Prize-winning economist and and Middle Tennessee State University alumnus James M. Buchanan died Wednesday morning in Blacksburg, Va., according to a statement released by family members.

He was 93 years old.

Buchanan, a 1940 MTSU graduate and a Rutherford County native, received the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences for his leadership in developing the public choice theory of economics.

Of receiving the prestigious Nobel award, Buchanan once wrote: “If Jim Buchanan can get a Nobel Prize, anyone can. Recognition and acceptance of this simple truth are very important.”

Buchanan is the only MTSU alumnus to win the honor.
“The university mourns the loss of Dr. James Buchanan, whose legacy as a scholar in economics, Nobel laureate and educator will live on as the namesake of our most prestigious academic honor, the Buchanan Fellowship,” MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee said in a press release.
“Dr. Buchanan, born in rural Rutherford County, always treasured his Tennessee roots and was a proud alumnus of our university. His passion for economic theory was ignited by a professor on our campus, and his generosity to MTSU has allowed many more students to find their calling. His continued involvement and connection to this university brought honor to our institution. We are forever in his debt.”

A stridently independent thinker, Buchanan earned the Nobel for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making. In the economics discipline, his contribution is known as the field of public choice, which brings the tools of economic analysis to the study of public decision making.

His book, “The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy,” which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock, is considered a classic work on public choice theory.

After he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Buchanan continued to write and lecture on his interests around the world until his death. He lived in Blacksburg and was married to the late Anne Bakke Buchanan, who died in 2005.

Buchanan spent much of his academic career in Virginia with tenures at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, where he established the Center for Study of Public Choice, as well as George Mason University, to which he and the Center for Study of Public Choice moved in 1983 and from which he retired in 2007.

He also taught at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Florida State University and University of California-Los Angeles.

In 1997, MTSU established the Buchanan Scholarship in his honor to recognize top students — known initially as Buchanan Scholars. When visiting MTSU in 1997 to address the first group of Buchanan Scholars, he shared these words of encouragement:

“Economics, the discipline that was to become my scientific home, requires expository writing skills, logical structures of analysis, and a grounding in ultimate reality. And political economy, the branch of moral philosophy from which economics springs, requires philosophical coherence. I came away from Middle Tennessee with all of these …”

In 2006, McPhee established the Buchanan Fellowship program in the University Honors College intended to attract top scholars from across the state and country. Only 20 applicants each year are selected as Buchanan Fellows, the highest academic award given to an entering student.

Rutherford County author Reuben Kyle, who serves as an emeritus professor in economics, will soon release a book entitled “From Nashboro to the Nobel Prize: The Buchanans of Tennessee,” with proceeds to go to the Buchanan Fellows program.

The grandson of Tennessee Gov. John P. Buchanan, he grew up on a Depression-era farm in the Gum community of Rutherford County. He attended Buchanan School, which was named as such because it was built on land once part of the family farm.

In his book of personal essays, “Better Than Plowing”, the down-to-earth Buchanan points out that his family’s humble roots instilled within him a strong work ethic — he earned money for college books and fees by milking cows — that set the stage for his distinguished career.

Buchanan graduated in 1940 from what was then Middle Tennessee State Teachers College with majors in mathematics, English literature and social science. He went on to a graduate fellowship at the University of Tennessee and an economics fellowship at Columbia University.

Duty to country then called during World War II, with Buchanan entering officer training in the U.S. Navy ROTC program, eventually serving on the staff of Adm. Chester Nimitz in Hawaii.

Following his service in the Pacific, Buchanan earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago.

The prolific scholar and author would serve later as the advisory general director of the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he also served as a distinguished professor emeritus.

Speaking at the MTSU spring commencement in May 2000, Buchanan challenged graduates to question the day’s political leadership, which seemed to lack the Middle Tennessee values he held so dear.

“An open politics makes no distinction between the Ivy Leagues and the bush leagues when it comes to telling us what we want our government to do. The people, yes, but all the people, treated as equals, and not some more equal than others. Along with this attitude, there is an abiding mistrust in allowing others, no matter whom, to control too many elements of our lives.”

During Buchanan’s visit to campus in 2000, former MTSU President James Walker made Buchanan the third recipient of the MTSU President’s Award, which recognizes those who have distinguished themselves through exemplary service to the university, extraordinary contributions to education, the community, or society, or remarkable professional achievement.

Buchanan is survived by two sisters Lila Graue of Fayetteville, Ark., and Elizabeth Bradley of Pearland, Texas, as well as three nephews, Doug Graue, Jim Whorley and Jeff Whorley.

An announcement regarding memorial services is pending.

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Buchanan Fellowship, College of Business, Economics, Education, James Buchanan, MTSU, Nobel Prize, Obits, Politics, Rutherford County, School of Economics
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