James M. Buchanan, Public Choice, and the Political Economy of Desegregation

A few months ago, the Southern Economic Journal made a “reject and resubmit” decision on a paper written with Phil Magness and Art Carden. We have recently completed this resubmission by rewriting the paper in order to focus on the issue of desegregation. The paper is available here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

Recent historical works, most notably the book ‘Democracy in Chains,’ advance the claim that 1986 Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan developed his formative contributions to political economy amidst the segregationist response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This argument accordingly holds that the research agenda of public choice economics emerged from an opportunistic alliance with Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to school integration, and should be situated within the racially tinged tradition of southern conservatism. While Buchanan wrote very little on the economics of race, an extensive review of archival evidence as well as his published works conclusively refutes this claimed association. Buchanan’s intellectual associations with Frank Knight, W.H. Hutt, and other economists who worked within anti-racist frameworks suggest that Buchanan did not see anything of value in segregation, even as a political vehicle for advancing his agenda. To the contrary, we show that Buchanan held an antipathetic view of segregation and believed that the competitive processes of an educational voucher system would undermine the “Massive Resistance” status quo. We accordingly reject the primary thesis of Democracy in Chains as the product of unsound and grossly misinformed research, and offer an alternative assessment of the position of race in the origins of public choice theory.


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