The worst that can happen is that they will ignore you…
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In memory of James M. Buchanan
Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
Baltimore, Jan 10, 2013
A southern gentleman, tall and gracious, was James M. Buchanan, the first Nobel laureate I met in the USA 14 years ago. We started by talking about Leibnitz and Locke, the role of law in shaping the evaluation and conception of liberty, and eventually arrived at his pet book, Cost and Choice. I was a first-year economics PhD student who had philosophical concerns and questions about neoclassical traditions, and he was an open-minded thinker who could listen, respond to, and later remember what we'd discussed and the topic on which I was focused: "Markets are part of economic systems; the mistake is that they are taught as all there is to economics." He validated my concerns and explained, "Markets work inside a set of rules, but people forget that they do not generate their own rules." Once I asked him, " How did you learn German and Italian well enough to read academic texts in both languages?" He replied: "Well, I didn't want to read novels, it was economics and philosophy, so I just needed to know some basics of the language and the rest was clear." Yes! Science was innate to him, his inspiration and drive. (Recently, his only complaint was that his deteriorating eyesight made reading difficult.) When I announced my long-term research agenda, he asked: "Are you sure this is what you want to do? Junior academics fare best by following existing lines of work." I retorted: " What's the worst that can happen? So, people will disagree with me…" He looked at me and said, "No my dear, the worst is that they will ignore you!" And, after a pause: "But you seem to be up to it!" After that, I enjoyed years of talking to him about his and my thoughts on various matters, always free of the worry of whether these thoughts might count on the popular academic numéraire. Just two weeks ago, he told me about a book he came across in the New York Times Book Review that " is right up your alley!" He remains in my memories as a thinker who cherished curiosity and the passion of sharing thoughts and discussing ideas for the sheer joy of intellectual engagement. Personally, he is a strong reason for me to remain content about being an old-fashion scholar. Two traits of his, rare in the world, are what I shall remember him for: an admirable clarity of mind until the very last days and a never-ending thirst for the pleasure of thinking.
Published on NYTimes.com from Jan. 11 to Jan. 12, 2013