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Choices, Public and Private - PDF - / Send As Email
Better Than Plowing and Other Personal Essays, by James M. Buchanan
by David R. Henderson
In Reason, January 1993, pp. 56-57 - Previous Article / Next Article

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Choices, Public and Private
have tried to pooh-pooh its petty and per-
sonal side. But ultimately science's talent
for accommodating itself to human idio-
syncrasy and coarseness is what makes it
work so well. (Remember, in due course
neutron stars did get discovered.) Under-
standing this, Dyson revels in science's
grubby humanity.
Indeed, mystifying science may do
real harm by persuading millions ofordi-
nary people that they have little to con-
tribute. Dyson fumes at "the tyranny of
the Ph.D. system," which, he says, drives
"many of the best and brightest of our
young people, including my own
daughters," from scientific careers. The
Ph.D. "has become a union card for scien-
tists," he declares, and his solution is typi-
cally Dysonesque: "I would like to give
everybody a Ph.D. at birth, or on the day
they enter graduate school, so that the
Ph.D. would no longer be an obstacle
either to education or to scientific em-
ployment. If such a rational solution of
the problem is judged to be too radical,
we could envisage a compromise solution
in which the time required to obtain a
Ph.D. is drastically shortened."
Many would disagree, but few will fail
to find Dyson intellectually refreshing.
He is one of those valuable writers who
can change the way one thinks.
"I was a writer long before I became a
scientist," says Dyson. The first line of his
book is as follows: "The world of science
and the world of literature have much in
common." How many scientists, or poets,
could have not only made that statement
but supported it with 350 pages of unfail-
ingly transparent prose?
Read Dyson for his view of the world
and for his view of science, but read him
also for pleasure and the warmth of his
company: "Last but not least, the public
can participate in science by sharing our
public monuments, taking the kids for a
picnic and walking through the dome of
the Hale telescope in the peace of a sum-
mer afternoon on Mount Palomar, driving
up Mount Hamilton by moonlight for a
visitors' night at the Lick Observatory
and looking at the glory of Saturn's rings
through the Crossley refractor." I called
him a writing scientist; "writer who does
science" would be just as fitting. Either
way, he is indispensable.
Joriatlzari Raiich, N coritributirig editor of
National Journal, is niitl?or qf Kind In-
quisitors: The New Attacks on Free
Thought, to be published this spring by
the University of Chicago Press.
Better than Plowing and Other Personal Essays, by James M. Buchanan, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 194 pages, $23.95
n 1971, as an undergraduate in eco- I nomics, I wrote James Buchanan a fan
letter after getting excited about his book
Piiblic Pririciples of Piiblic Debt. Imagine
my surprise when I got a reply the next
week. Nor was it a perfunctory reply. In his
letter, Buchanan suggested that I update
some of the data in his book and submit the
results as a paper to the Nrrtiorzd 7k.r Jour-
rzcrl. (To my regret, I didn't.) Those of you
who know academics will know just how
rare it is for a senior, internationally
known scholar to give this kind of nurtur-
ing to one of his or her own students, let
alone to a 20-year-old stranger.
Buchanan is well-known for nurturing
students, and the Nobel Prize in econom-
ics that he won in 1986 did not seem to
change that side of him. He reveals more
about his own character and personality,
and gives punchy commentary on various
other topics, in his book Better Than
Plowirig. The title, Buchanan explains, is
a description of an academic career, taken
from his mentor, Frank Knight. These
essays about Buchanan's roots and his
thoughts about his work are probably as
close to an autobiography as he will ever
write. Those who, like me, are fascinated
by reading about people's intellectual
odysseys will enjoy much of this book.
Buchanan, who grew up in relative
poverty in Tennessee, received his under-
graduate education at Middle Tennessee
State Teachers College in Murfreesboro.
Drafted into the US. Navy in August
1941, he spent World War I1 as a
lieutenant at Pearl Harbor and on Guam.
One incident in the Navy stands out, in
his memory and in the book. The group
of cadets with which he was training in
194 1 was divided alphabetically. But be-
cause there were too few As and Bs with
an Ivy League background but a surplus
of Ivy Leaguers in the Rs and Ss, an R was
imported to head Buchanan's platoon.
His name: Bill Rockefeller.
Comments Buchanan: "This initial ap-
pointment of cadet officers 'radicalized'
me to such an extent that emotional scars
remain, even a half century later.'' (To this
day, Buchanan favors confiscatory in-
heritance taxes, a view that he admits was
conditioned by that experience.)
So, writes Buchanan, when he decided
after the war to do graduate work in
economics, he wanted no part of "eastern
establishment" elitism. He decided to at-
tend the University of Chicago.
The decision, he recognizes, was fate-
ful. For it was there that Buchanan met
James Buchanan lost his basic optimism
about government in the free-spending '60s.
and studied under economist Frank
Knight. When Buchanan arrived at Chi-
cago, he was a self-described "libertarian
socialist." He had been antigovernment
but also, after having read his grand-
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56 reason JANUARY 1993
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