While relatively short, Cost and Choice, according to Hartmut Kliemt in the foreword, “holds quite a central place in Buchanan’s work. For the fundamental economic notion of ‘cost’, or ‘opportunity cost’, is intimately related to the individualist and subjectivist perspective that is so essential to the Buchanan enterprise.”
To be sure, the Austrian school of economists enunciated similar views of cost decades before Buchanan, but Buchanan advances his theories by attempting to integrate his views into the orthodox classical and neoclassical framework.
When he published the book in 1969, Buchanan hoped that other scholars would follow him in researching the opportunity-cost concept and its applications. Unlike the theater of public policy, where Buchanan’s work is widely celebrated and influential, his important work on the issue of cost and choice, so clearly explicated in this volume, has done little to move the mainstream of economic thinking in the thirty years since its original publication. It is hoped that this new edition of Buchanan’s seminal work will place Buchanan’s groundbreaking ideas in wider circulation.
Buchanan writes in the preface, “My aim is to utilize the theory of opportunity cost to demonstrate basic methodological distinctions that are often overlooked and to show that a consistent usage of this theory clarifies important areas of disagreement on policy issues.”
If among a nation of hunters ... it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it costs to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer.
The classical theory of exchange value is summarized in this statement. Adam Smith was not so careful as his modern counterpart who states his assumptions precisely, but perhaps this is why we still enjoy reading The Wealth of Nations. Normal or natural value in exchange is determined by the relative costs of production. This answers the central questions of classical economics.
Costs are calculated in units of resource input. “It usually costs” means that a specific resource outlay is required, an outlay that can be estimated in advance with some accuracy and measured ex post either by the resource owner or by an external observer who doubles as cost accountant. The relative costs of producing are objectively quantifiable, and no valuation process is necessary. Given a standard for measurement, relative costs can be computed like the relative weights of apples or potatoes. In Smith’s elementary and conjectural model, the standard for measurement is a unit of homogeneous labor time. There are no nonlabor inputs (no other “negative goods”). The production functions for both deer and beaver are linear and homogeneous; that is to say, deer and beaver are available in unlimited supply at prevailing relative cost ratios.
James M. Buchanan
In 1986 James M. Buchanan (1919-2012) was awarded the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Universally respected as one of the founders of the “public choice” school of economics, he is the author of numerous books and hundreds of articles in the areas of public finance, public choice, constitutional economics and economic philosophy. He is best known for such works as The Calculus of Consent, The Limits of Liberty, The Power to Tax, and The Reason of Rules. Buchanan has devoted himself to the study of the contractual and constitutional basis for the theory of economic and political decision making.
See also at Econlib: the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics entry on Buchanan