BEc, PhD (ANU)
(Deceased), 2022-07-29


*Written by Philip Pettit

Harold Geoffrey Brennan was born on 15 Sept 1944, came to the ANU as an undergraduate student of economics in 1962 and graduated with first class honors in 1966. He immediately went on to pursue research as a graduate student but was appointed two years later as Lecturer in Public Finance, promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1973, and to Reader in 1978. In those early years at the University, he published twenty articles, including some that brought him international repute; spent a year on secondment as a member of the Australian Taxation Review; and was awarded a Ph.D. on the submission of some publications in the theory of public goods and income distribution. In those years too, he married a fellow student, Margaret Youngman, and they started their family. 

His publications brought Geoff to the attention of James Buchanan, later a Nobel Laureate in Economics, and this led to his appointment in 1978 as Professor of Economics at Buchanan’s base, the Center for the Study of Public Choice, then situated in the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and later George Mason University. After five years in the United States, Geoff and Margaret returned with their family of four to Australia, where late in 1983 he became Professor of Economics at the ANU. He was head of the Dept of Economics from 1984 to 1987, transferred to the Research School of Social Sciences in 1988, and served there as Director from 1991 to 1996. Moving his base to Social and Political Theory, and then Philosophy, he remained an active member of the School until his death; his retirement at the end of 2016 made little or no difference to his academic and social presence or indeed his activity in research and teaching. From 2005 on, Geoff spent a semester each year as a joint appointment of the Dept of Political Science in Duke University and the Dept of Philosophy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; he was a research professor at Duke and helped establish the PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics) program conducted at UNC but jointly sponsored by Duke. He also played a major part in getting a similar PPE program going at the ANU. 

Geoff’s early work at the ANU mainly focused on the theory of public goods and issues of equity in taxation. With his move to the United States, he became a leading figure within the Public Choice tradition, as it was known. He published work related to the two strands in that tradition. First, the belief that it is as important to look at the rational incentives of the authorities who form government policy, for example in the area of taxation, as it is to look in the standard economic manner at the rational incentives of those who live under that policy and adjust to it: if those incentives can lead subjects to bend things in their favor, so they may lead authorities to do the same. And second, the belief that in order to inhibit authorities from bending things in their favor, it is important that policymaking be directed, as far as possible, by democratically authorized rules, even rules that are constitutionally protected against legislative alteration. The first theme is emphasized in The Power to Tax (1980), the second in The Reason of Rules (1985), both books co-authored with James Buchanan. 

About the time of his return to the ANU, Geoff worked with a number of colleagues in loosening the assumption, still present in the work with Buchanan, that human beings can generally be modelled as rational, narrowly self-interested agents. He did this initially in arguing for the importance of expressive motivations to human behavior. To act expressively relative to a presumptive goal is to act in a way that reveals not so much a concern to promote that goal as a concern to present oneself to others, or indeed to oneself, as an agent with certain attitudes, including attitudes towards that goal. In Democracy and Decision (1993), a book with an American philosopher, Loren Lomasky, he argued that if voters rationally discount the effect of their vote, on the grounds that it is unlikely to make any difference, it may then be rational for them to act expressively out of a desire to be able to see themselves, and let others see them, as public-spirited; it may even be rational for them to vote against policies that would benefit them personally. And later in Democratic Devices and Desires (2000), a book written with Alan Hamlin, an English economist and political theorist, he explored the implications of expressive behavior in predicting voting patterns and in designing institutions with a view to achieving certain valued effects. 

The disposition to loosen the modelling of human beings as rational, narrowly self-interested agents, led Geoff in further directions during his later period at the ANU. In 2004 he and Philip Pettit, an ANU colleague, published The Economy of Esteem, in which they argued that just as agents may be rationally moved to act expressively in certain contexts, so they may be rationally moved more generally, as a long tradition holds, by a concern to maintain the acceptance and approval of other people. Among the social facts that they took this to help explain are the generation of social norms and people’s compliance with them and Geoff later collaborated with other ANU colleagues—Lina Eriksson, Bob Goodin and Nic Southwood—to write a comprehensive study of those phenomena. In this work, Explaining Norms (2013), he took a further step in loosening up his model of human behavior. This book argues for the need to recognize the role in motivation of normative attitudes that resist any reduction to self-interested motives, even motives of an expressive or esteem-based kind.

At the time of his death Geoff was finishing a book, On Exchange, co-authored with a German colleague, Harmut Kliemt, which looks at how best to characterize exchange in economics and in wider political settings. He had also done a great deal of work—much of it while he struggled with illness— on a book, Back to Basics, that covers topics like the nature of rationality, methodological individualism and the need for trade-offs; these are central to his interest in PPE research and teaching.

Geoff was the most warm-hearted and generous of people, always ready to hear the views of others, always poised to discuss and collaborate, and always disposed to hail the achievements of colleagues and students and to celebrate a community to which he was deeply devoted. His penchant for celebration frequently led him to song, displaying an operatic talent for which he was well known outside as well as inside the University. After returning to Canberra in 1983, as before leaving, he displayed his rich tenor voice in solo performances at a number of venues, played a leading part in Oriana Chorale, a distinguished cappella choir, and sang with Margaret in the Choir of All Saints, Ainslie. 

Those of us who worked under Geoff as Director of the Research School of Social Sciences, will forever remember the sound of his voice ringing joyously around the corridors of the Coombs building, as he did his daily round of departmental seminars and events. Interested in our diverse pursuits, and invested in our individual success, he embraced us all, and made us into a whole that was manifestly greater than the sum of its parts.

Geoff was elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1987, and was the recipient of many awards and prizes, national and international, including the Presidency of the Public Choice Society (2002-4), an Honorary Doctorate from the University of St Gallen, Switzerland (2002), a Distinguished Fellowship of the Australian Economic Society (2013), and the Hayek Medal (2014). Had he lived longer he would undoubtedly have garnered ever more laurels. As a scholar as well as a man, he was one of the greats. Goodbye Geoff.