I doubt James Buchanan is well-known among Catholics but he should be, especially if we are interested in pursuing political means for particular ends. Buchanan won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1986 “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” Sans jargon, Buchanan was a pioneer of the theory of public choice, which analyzes the behavior of public actors (e.g., legislators) and decision-making (e.g., democracy) using the tools and understanding usually used with private actors (e.g., consumers, investors, entrepreneurs) and decision-making (e.g., markets).
As with other economists like Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman, most people know James Buchanan not for these technical achievements but for other, more popular, ideas. You can summarize Buchanan’s popular contributions in the subtitle of one of his essays: “Politics Without Romance.” Understanding Buchanan seems necessary especially considering that Church leaders occasionally (or too frequently, IMHO) seek government remedies for particular problems (like fighting poverty, passing legislation, immigration reform, “fair” trade rules, protecting jobs or wages, etc.) while simultaneously adhering to a “romantic” model of the political process. “Romantic” politics is the sort we were all taught in grade school: disinterested public servants selflessly giving their time and effort all for the common good. The reality, as Buchanan and public choice theory demonstrates, is (not surprisingly) that politicians are people too; they have beliefs, biases, desires, and respond to incentives like the rest of us. Adhering to the “romantic” political belief in sinless philosopher kings serves no useful purpose if we are at all to engage in politics as it really is.
Some tantalizing quotes from “Politics Without Romance:”
James Buchanan died on January 9th at age 93.