Saturday, January 19, 2013

A belated Thank-You to Dr. James Buchanan.

Dr. James Buchanan passed away last week. I won't try to out-do Tyler Cowan's brief but excellent summary of his accomplishments (I couldn't anyway), but a quick look at them will reveal that he leaves some very large shoes to fill.

Although I did not meet him, it occurred to me this morning as I was milling about that I owe him a thank you.

For several years after first identifying as a libertarian I fell into a trap that so many of us do: I felt as though we are surrounded with conspiring, possibly evil statists in power paired with willfully ignorant people who were content to leech of the state (akin to Rand's "moochers"), feelings bolstered by residual tribalism from years in politics. When I encountered people with whom I disagreed I would try to come up with witticisms and uncomfortable facts designed to put my opponents, as I thought of them, into the position of realizing they must be capable of supporting something abhorrent with their beliefs. I surely drove people away in the process.

And then I attended a Fraser Institute/Liberty Fund co-sponsored seminar on public choice economics, the rationale behind which is that we should treat everyone the same when it comes to understanding how they make decisions, whether it's in the market, in politics or anywhere else. (You can read more about this and why it's important in Steve Horwitz's recent column.) During this seminar I had a moment of clarity.

If bureaucrats and politicians (who are the most evil of all if you are an Angry Libertarian) are just people responding to incentives, it changes everything. No one is evil. People are just people - none of them are angels, none devils.

Realizing this allowed me to make a drastic change in my outlook on life. The presumption of good, impossible if evil people are the reason for our problems, allows me to see that we are all looking for ways to make the world better - we just have different ways of understanding our problems and trying to solve them. Intelligent, good people disagree about all sorts of things.

This has made the world a much less scary, hostile place for me. It has helped me to empathize with people I disagree with and allowed me to spend my time trying to understand them better rather than trying to figure out how to "trick" them into liberty.It has allowed me to become a better person.

So thank you, Dr. Buchanan, for developing the insights that helped make my world a more peaceful, miraculous and beautiful place for me. The best way I can repay that is to keep trying to bridge the gaps with those with whom I disagree, and I intend to do just that.

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