The late Geoffrey Brennan had two sides. The first was a world-class academic and intellectual who was multidisciplinary, curious, committed to the principles of liberty and freedom, and rigorous in his theories and methods. This is how he collaborated so effectively with James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and the first generation of public choice scholars, first at Virginia Tech and later at George Mason University. He and Lorraine Lomasky and Philippe Petit wrote groundbreaking and important books on democracy and deliberation.
But the other side of Brennan, as seen often by those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, was deeply kind, generous, outgoing, who made time for students and colleagues, laughed easily, sang beautifully and created countless. Friends during an academic career cut short by leukemia at age 77 this week.
And that personality was key to the success of the Public Choice Center during his tenure there. Not everyone could handle Buchanan’s strong intellect and special personality, but Brennan’s sharp mind, her patience, decency, and charitable spirit were more than enough to bring out the best in her co-writers, colleagues, and students. His time in Blacksburg and beyond.
Brennan liked to describe himself as a young “blue-eyed boy” who arrived in Blacksburg in the 1970s and began a collaboration with Buchanan that lasted more than 20 years and included co-authoring seminal works such as Power to tax And The reason for the rules. After leaving Blacksburg, he returned to his native Australia to return to the United States where he helped found one of the next generation PPE programs that has spread throughout the world. With Mike Munger, Brennan initiated and oversees joint PPE at Duke and UNC-Chapel, sharing his time living, teaching, and writing in North Carolina and Canberra.
After his collaboration with Buchanan, Brennan became more interested in questions at the intersection of politics and philosophy and used his economics training with co-authoring skills. Democracy and decision making Where he and Lauren Lomasky tried to tackle a long-standing puzzle for economists — why people don’t bother to vote when their individual votes play no real role in the outcome of elections. Their solution was to model voting as an emotional act rather than an instrumental one. He then turned his attention to concepts of honor and rules in his later work, again blurring the boundaries between disciplines.
Brennan’s relationship with the Liberty Fund spans more than five decades. He has attended, moderated and discussed more than 70 colloquiums on various topics in economics, philosophy and politics. Along with Hartmut Klimt and Robert Tollison, he served as co-editor of the Liberty Fund’s 20 volume set. The Collected Works of James Buchanan. I had the opportunity to serve as a fellow at Buchanan’s final Liberty Fund conference in Blacksburg in 2018, fittingly with Buchanan’s legacy. Geoff often, perhaps always, made everyone feel welcome, challenged and pushed the conferees gently but firmly, and of course sang in that glorious baritone voice on the last night. He will be missed.