Commentary

The Sayer of Truth: A Personal Tribute to Peter Bauer

Objectively considered, and apart from a long-standing personal friendship, Peter Bauer had a formative influence on my own career. Almost single-handedly he orchestrated my academic year at Cambridge University in 1961-62. In 1960 or thereabouts, when Peter was just leaving Cambridge for the London School of Economics, he realized that there was an open slot for the public finance lectures after Alan Prest’s departure. Peter encouraged me to, first, express an interest and, second, to accept the invitation once offered. Meanwhile, he somehow accomplished the more difficult task of getting the university to invite me-a neophyte from the boondocks of American academia. And life among the tribes in Cambridge opened my eyes to the sometimes idealized world of high-table talk and Oxbridge snobbery. But to be a guest of Sir Dennis Robertson at a Trinity College feast, and to see James Meade at his best, and Joan Robinson at her worst-these were experiences to be treasured, the latter made all the more surprising when I learned from Peter that he had been Joan’s assistant for two years while he was a student.

During my three separate stints at LSE, all in the 1960s, Peter and Basil Yamey, Peter’s coauthor, were my best friends, both in the common room and in the social setting outside the academic halls. Over many meals, at the Bauer, Buchanan, or Yamey establishments, we resolved most issues of the world and subjected our economist peers to the criticism they really did deserve. And shopping with Peter Bauer, a man of impeccable taste, among the London antique shops for just the proper small piece of furniture was, for me, an entry to a culture to which I could only aspire to, never achieve. At times, however, Peter did not quite seem to fit the niche that he wanted to occupy, as instance the Hurlingham Club, an establishment that appeared a bit more sporting than Peter, even at his best.

Peter Bauer was among the very first, if not the first, distinguished lecturer that Warren Nutter and I invited to the University of Virginia after we set up the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy, the Center that was to become notorious in the ideologically charged atmosphere of the early Cold War years. Peter later become a regular visitor, in Charlottesville, Blacksburg, and Fairfax, whenever possible, on his increasingly frequent trips to America in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

He valued good things, extending also to food and drink. He paid my wife, Ann, a fine natural cook, the supreme compliment, when he remarked “the cooking is good in this house.” I can hear his voice now with those words, and I often suggested to Ann that she should write a cookbook under that very title.

Peter Bauer was, first of all, a simple economist, who valued honesty above all else. I do not use the word “simple” here lightly or provocatively. To Peter Bauer, economics is a simple subject, with relatively few basic principles. What is required is straightforward honesty in applying these principles to the problems confronted in the real world. His ability and his willingness to cut through the complex cant of modern economics did not serve him well in the disciplinary popularity contests. In one sense, Peter Bauer was a direct follower of Adam Smith, both in his understanding that incentives affect behavior and in his willingness to extend the rationality postulate to include the peasant farmers as well as the traders, and, importantly, the bureaucrats. In a very real way, public choice, as a research program, was embodied naturally in Bauer’s analyses of the politicized development schemes of mid-century. He despised the charlatans in the temple and took it on himself to expose them at each and every opportunity. Who, among those who knew Peter Bauer, will not recall his clippings from the press, reflecting the absurdities of economic discourse? Somehow or another, Peter seemed to think that such absurdities could not ultimately win the day, or, at the least, he was unwilling to resign himself to this prospect. But perhaps there is less honor among the idea merchants than Peter recognized. He may have failed to understand that far too many of his peers in the academy place little or no value on truth, as such. He was not naïve, however, in his approach to what truth is and the process of discovery. Indeed, it was Peter Bauer who specifically suggested that I read David Stove as an antidote to the simplistic Popperian dominance in economists’ methodology.

Peter Bauer felt that he had a moral obligation to expose the lies being told by his peers. And while he surely did feel that his own ideas were vindicated by the turns of history, he remained pessimistic about prospects for a viable liberal order. The liars are always with us, and neither the events of history nor the triumph of ideas will hold off those who would subvert the truth, which, in political economy, must be continually defended. Such truth has indeed lost a champion.

James M. Buchanan, distinguished senior fellow, received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986. He is the advisory general director at the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy, George Mason University.