[Paleopsych] James M. Buchanan: Public Choice: The Origins and Development of a Research Program
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Public Choice: The Origins and Development of a Research Program*
James M. Buchanan Center for Study of Public Choice George Mason
University Fairfax, Virginia
My subtitle identifies public choice as a research program rather than
as a discipline or even a subdiscipline. (The Lakatosian definition
seems to fit closely.) A research program incorporates acceptance of a
hard core of presuppositions that impose limits on the domain of
scientific inquiry while, at the same time, insulating such inquiry from
essentially irrelevant criticism. The hard core in public choice can be
summarized in three presuppositions: (1) methodological individualism,
(2) rational choice, and (3) politics-as-exchange. The first two of
these scientific building blocks are those that inform basic economics
and will raise few criticisms from economists, although they become
central in noneconomists' attacks on the whole enterprise. The third
element in the hard core is less familiar, and I shall discuss this
feature of public choice more fully later.
Temporally, this research program involves a half century during which
it originated, developed, and matured. Although there were precursors,
some of whom will enter the narrative that follows, we can date the
origins of public choice from midcentury. And this fact, in itself, is
of considerable interest. Viewed retrospectively, from the vantage point
of 2003, the scientific-explanatory "gap" that public choice emerged to
fill seems so large that the development of the program seems to have
As they emerged from World War II, governments, even in Western
democracies, were allocating between one-third and one-half of their
total product through collective-political institutions rather than
through markets. Economists, however, were devoting their efforts almost
exclusively to explanations-understandings of the market sector. No
attention was being paid to political-collective decision making.
Practitioners in political science were no better. They had developed no
explanatory basis, no theory as it were, from which operationally
falsifiable hypotheses might be derived.
The whole politicized sector of social interaction was, therefore,
"crying out" for explanatory models designed to help understand the
empirical reality that was observed. My own piddling first entry into
the subject matter (Buchanan 1949) was little more than a call for those
economists who examined taxes and spending to pay some attention to the
models of politics that were assumed to be in existence. And, except for
the important, but neglected, paper by Howard Bowen (1943), even those
who made the recognized seminal contributions did not seem to appreciate
the fact that they were entering uncharted territory.
Almost simultaneously, Duncan Black and Kenneth Arrow commenced their
work on two quite separate problems, although their results converged
with consequences that are by now familiar. Black was concerned with the
working of majority-voting rules in small committee settings: How did
voting results emerge from separate individual orderings, when
collective alternatives (proposals, motions, etc.) were presented in a
sequence of pairwise choices? Black found, to his surprise, that only
two persons had worked out some of the elementary logic-the French
nobleman Condorcet and Charles Dodgson, an Oxford logician more
familiarly known under the name of Lewis Carroll. Black (1948, 1958),
who was working in Wales, did not attract much early attention, either
in his own country or elsewhere.
Arrow sought to answer the question: Is it possible to aggregate
separate individual orderings over social states so as to generate a
"social" ordering that would satisfy reasonable conditions for
rationality akin to those that characterized the individual orderings?
Arrow commenced from within the tradition of what was then called
"theoretical welfare economics." With the demolition of utilitarianism
in 1932 at the hands of Lionel Robbins in his The Nature and the
Significance of Economic Science, economists rediscovered Pareto, but
the Paretian classificatory scheme did not allow for a means of
selecting among the many positions that met the criterion for Pareto
efficiency or optimality. Using the formal tools of symbolic logic,
Arrow reached the seemingly dramatic conclusion that no such social
ordering may be derived unless some restrictions are placed on the
individual preference orderings.
The now-famous impossibility theorem, as published in Arrow's book
Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), exerted a major impact on
the thinking of economists and political scientists and stimulated an
extended discussion. Arrow, and Black less emphatically, was taken to
have shown that democracy, interpreted as equivalent to majority voting,
could not work. Both of these scientists had discovered, or
rediscovered, the phenomenon of majority cycles, and they rigorously
demonstrated that, under some sets of preference orderings, majority
voting in a sequence of pairwise comparisons would generate continuous
cycles, with no equilibrium or stopping point.
The central point may be easily illustrated in the three-voter,
three-alternative setting, as shown in the figure. Note that each of the
three voters, labeled 1, 2, and 3, has a consistent ordering over the
three options for choice, A, B, and C. Note also, however, that, when
put to a pairwise sequence of majority votes, A will defeat B; B will,
in turn, defeat C, but C will defeat A. There is no alternative that
will command a majority over all of the other options.
1 2 3
A B C
B C A
C A B
Median Voter Models
Black, in particular, wanted to resuscitate the majority-voting rule, as
the legitimate means of reaching group decisions. He discovered that if
the alternatives for collective choice can be arrayed along a single
dimension in such fashion that each voter's preferences exhibit
single-peakedness, then the worrisome majority cycles would not occur.
Instead, in this setting, the alternatives preferred by the voter whose
preferences are median for the group would be majority-preferred to any
other alternatives. This result, referred to as the "median voter
theorem," was quickly incorporated into both analytical and empirical
The single-peakedness required remains highly plausible in many
settings. Suppose that the choice options, A, B, and C, are alternative
levels of spending on a collective outlay, say, on education. It is
surely plausible that someone should prefer high spending (A), to medium
spending (B), to low spending (C), hence the ordering for the first
voter in the figure. It is also plausible that a voter, say 2, might
prefer medium spending (B) to low spending (C), and this in turn to high
spending (A), the ordering shown for the second voter. But look at the
ordering for the third voter in the figure. This voter prefers low
spending (C), but his second choice is high spending (A) which he
prefers over medium spending (B), which seems a rather bizarre ordering
in some settings. Yet it is precisely such anomalies in orderings that
are necessary to generate the majority-voting cycles. The median voter
theorem seemed initially to be explanatory over wide ranges of
It was evident early on, however, and also had been recognized by Black
himself, that once collective choices involve more than a single
dimension, majority cycles must occur even if all voters exhibit
single-peakedness in preferences over each of the dimensions considered
separately. Majority voting seemed to be basically unstable in the sense
that it could not produce a unique collective choice; a political
equilibrium could not be reached.
Is Collective Rationality Desirable?
It was at this point that I entered the discussion with a generalized
critique of the whole corpus of analysis generated by the Arrow-Black
approach (Buchanan 1954a, 1954b). If, indeed, preferences differ over
collective alternatives, and if these preferences are such as to
generate cycles in voting outcomes, would not this result be precisely
that which is best? Any attainment of a unique solution by majority
voting would amount to the permanent imposition of the majority's will
on the outvoted minority. Would not a guaranteed rotation, as produced
through the cycle, be the preferred sequence here? In such a cyclical
sequence, the members of the minority in the first round are enabled to
come back in subsequent rounds and ascend to majority membership. My
concern, then and later, was always with means of preventing
discrimination against members of minorities rather than ensuring that,
somehow, majority rule produced stable sets of political outcomes.
Examined from an economist's perspective, what guarantee could majority
rule offer against collective actions that were inefficient in the
standard Pareto sense? Clearly, the natural feature of majority voting
is the separation of the interests of members of the majority from those
of the minority. On any single voting sequence, some persons in the
inclusive polity must lose and others must gain. How can collective
choice be made more efficient? And more just?
Wicksell and the Rule of Unanimity
At this point, I introduce the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell,
who is the most important of all precursory figures in public choice,
especially for my own work and for what we now call "constitutional
economics." In his dissertation published in 1896, Wicksell was
concerned about both the injustice and the inefficiency of untrammeled
majority rule in parliamentary assemblies. He did not discover the
possibility of the majority cycle, but he did recognize that majorities
were quite likely to enact legislation aimed at benefiting the
constituencies of their own members at the expense of those members left
outside of the majority coalitions. Majority rule seemed quite likely to
impose net costs or damages on large segments of the
taxpayer-beneficiary group. Why should members of such minorities,
facing discrimination, lend their support to political structures?
Unless all groups can somehow benefit from the ultimate exchange with
the government, how can overall stability be maintained?
These considerations led Wicksell to question the efficacy of majority
rule itself. And to ensure both enhanced efficiency and increased
justice in the fundamental dealings of the individual with governmental
authority (the state), Wicksell proposed that the voting rule be
modified in the direction of unanimity. If the agreement of all persons
in the voting group should be required to implement collective action,
then this result, in itself, would guarantee that all persons secure net
gains and, further, that the projects so approved yield, overall,
benefits in excess of costs.
Wicksell recognized that, if applied in a literal voting setting, a
requirement of unanimity would produce a stalemate, since it allows each
and every person to play off against all others in the group. Such a
recognition, however, does not change the value of the unanimity rule as
a benchmark for comparative evaluation. In suggestions for practical
constitutional reforms, Wicksell supported changes in voting rules from
simple to qualified majorities, perhaps, for example, the requirement of
five-sixths approval for collective proposals.
My own serendipitous discovery of Wicksell's neglected work in 1948,
followed by my later translation of this work from German, introduced
the important contribution to English-language scholars and laid the
groundwork for later developments in what we now call "constitutional
economics," which I shall discuss more fully below.
The Endogeneity of Alternatives
In their analyses, Black and Arrow had assumed, more or less implicitly,
that the alternatives for collective choice, among which the voting rule
generates an outcome, are exogenous to the process itself, that is, that
the motions, candidates, or proposals exist prior to the selection
process itself. For Wicksell, this exogeneity could not be present, but
he did not, himself, recognize the relevance of this difference.
Gordon Tullock, with whom I began to work at the University of Virginia
in 1958, wrote a seminal paper on majority rule (Tullock 1959) that made
the endogeneity of the choice options a central feature, although, even
here, he did not recognize the generality of the distinction. Tullock's
example was that of farmers-voters, each of whom wants to have his local
road repaired with costs borne by the whole community of taxpayers.
Majority-voting rules, as these allow for separate coalitions of
farmers, generate results that impose costs on all farmers, while
producing inefficiently large outlays on all local roads. These results
emerge because majority-voting rules, as the institutions for making
collective choices, allow any and all potential coalitions to advance
taxing-spending proposals endogenously-proposals that would never arise
from outside, so to speak.
The Calculus of Consent
If majority-voting rules operate so as to produce inefficient and unjust
outcomes, and if political stability is secured only by discrimination
against minorities, how can democracy, as the organizing principle for
political structure, possibly claim normative legitimacy? The
Wicksellian criterion for achieving justice and efficiency in collective
action, namely the shift from majority-voting rules toward unanimity,
seems institutionally impractical. But, without some such reform, how
could persons, as voters-taxpayers-beneficiaries be assured that the
ultimate exchange with the state would yield net benefits? That the
whole game of politics be positive sum?
At this point, and in implicit response to these questions, Tullock and
I commenced to work on what was to become our book The Calculus of
Consent, published in 1962. The central contribution of our book was to
impose a two-level structure of collective decision making: we
distinguished between what may be called "ordinary politics" (indicated
by decisions made, often by majority voting, in legislative assemblies)
and "constitutional politics" (indicated by decisions made on the set of
framework rules within which the operation of ordinary politics is
allowed to proceed). We were not, of course, inventing this two-level
distinction as descriptive of political reality; both in legal theory
and in practice, constitutional law had long been distinguished from
statute law. What we did was to bring this quite familiar distinction
into the corpus of the theoretical analysis of politics, the research
program that was just on the verge of being developed in the 1950s and
This distinction allowed us to answer the questions posed previously.
Less-than-unanimity rules, and even majority rules, may be allowed to
operate over the decisions made through ordinary politics provided that
there is generalized consensus on the "constitution," on the inclusive
set of framework rules that place boundaries on what ordinary politics
can and cannot do. In this fashion, the analysis in The Calculus of
Consent made it possible to incorporate the Wicksellian reform thrust
toward qualified or super majorities into politics at the level of
constitutional rules, while allowing for ordinary majority-voting rules
within constitutional limits.
In a sense, the whole analysis in our book could have been interpreted
as a formalization of the structure that James Madison had in mind when
he constructed the U.S. Constitution. Or, at the least, the analysis
offered a substantive criticism of the then-dominant elevation of
majority voting to sacrosanct status in political science.
The Public Choice Society and Public Choice
Our book was well-received by both economists and political scientists.
And, through the decades since its publication, the book has achieved
status as a seminal work in the research program. The initial interest
in the book, and its arguments, prompted Tullock and me, who were then
at the University of Virginia, to initiate and organize a small research
conference in Charlottesville in April 1963. We brought together
economists, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars from other
disciplines, all of whom were engaged in research outside the boundaries
of their disciplines. The discussion was sufficiently stimulating to
motivate the formation of a continuing organization, which we first
called the Committee on Non-Market Decision-Making, and to initiate
plans for a journal initially called Papers on Non-Market
Decision-Making, which Tullock agreed to edit.
We were all unhappy with these awkward labels, but after several annual
meetings there emerged the new name "public choice," for both the
organization and the journal. In this way the Public Choice Society and
the journal Public Choice came into being. Both have proved to be quite
successful as institutional embodiments of the research program, and
sister organizations and journals have since been set up in Europe and
William Riker, who organized some of the early meetings, exerted a major
influence on American political science through the establishment and
operation of the graduate research program at the University of
Rochester. Second- and even third-generation Riker students occupy major
positions throughout the country and carry forward the research thrust
in positive political analysis.
In the late 1960s, Tullock and I shifted to Virginia Polytechnic and
State University, and in Blacksburg we set up the Center for Study of
Public Choice, which served as an institutional home, of sorts, for
visiting research scholars throughout the world. This center, and its
related programs, operated effectively until 1983, when it was shifted
to George Mason University, where its operation continues.
I shall not discuss in detail the institutional history of the society,
the journal, the center, and related organizations. Suffice it to say
here that these varying structures reflect the development and maturing
of the whole research program.
Subprograms and Rent Seeking
I shall barely discuss the separate research subprograms that have
emerged within public choice as the umbrella subdiscipline. Note may be
made only of some, but by no means all, of these subprograms: Riker's
early work on coalition formation in legislatures (Riker 1962) was the
focus of early attention; the economic analysis of anarchy attracted
much effort in the early 1970s (Tullock 1972, 1974a, 1974b; Buchanan
1975); agenda manipulation as a means of controlling political outcomes
(Romer and Rosenthal 1978); Mancur Olson's logic of collective action
(1965); James Coleman's exchange-based social action (1990);
explanations for the growth of government; theories of bureaucracy;
structure-induced equilibria in politics; expressive versus interest
voting; and the role of ideology. These and other subprograms emerged
from within public choice, quite apart from the more familiar subjects
upon which analysis was brought to bear, such as unicameral versus
bicameral legislatures, legislative committee structures, proportional
versus plurality systems, direct democracy, size of legislatures,
federalism, and many others.1
One subprogram that emerged from within public choice deserves specific,
if necessarily, brief discussion here. I refer to rent seeking, a
subprogram initiated in a seminal paper by Tullock in 1967, and
christened with this title by Anne Krueger in 1974. At base, the central
idea emerges from the natural mind-set of the economist, whose
explanation of interaction depends critically on the predictable
responses of persons to measurable incentives. If an opportunity that
promises to yield value arises, persons will invest time and resources
in efforts to capture such value for themselves. The market itself is a
profit-and-loss system; resources tend to move to their most highly
valued uses because persons can be predicted to respond positively to
promised profit opportunities and negatively to threatened losses.
The extension of this motivational postulate to the share of value
allocated through politics or collective action seems elementary now,
but until Tullock explicitly made the connection, no attention had been
paid to the profound implications: If there is value to be gained
through political action, persons will invest resources in efforts to
capture this value. And if this value takes the form of any transfer
from one group to others, the investment is wasteful in an aggregate
Tullock's early treatment of rent seeking was concentrated on monopoly,
tariffs, and theft, but the list could be almost indefinitely expanded.
If the government is empowered to grant monopoly rights or tariff
protection to one group, at the expense of the general public or to
designated losers, then it follows that potential beneficiaries will
compete for the prize, so to speak. And, since by construction, only one
group can be rewarded, the
1For a comprehensive treatment that includes discussion of the
subprograms in public choice, see Mueller (1989).
resources invested by other groups is wasted. These resources could have
been used to produce valued goods and services.
Once this basic insight is incorporated into the mind-set of the
observer, much of modern politics can only be interpreted as
rent-seeking activity. The pork-barrel politics of the United States is
only the most obvious example. Much of the growth of the transfer sector
of government can best be explained by the behavior of political agents
who compete in currying constituency support through promises of
The rent-seeking subprogram remains active along several dimensions. How
much value, in the aggregate, is dissipated through efforts to use
political agency for essentially private profit? How can the activity of
rent seeking, as aimed to secure discriminatory private gains, be
properly distinguished from the activity aimed to further genuinely
shared "public" interests? I shall not go into detail here, but it
should be clear that rent seeking, as a subprogram in public choice more
generally, opens up many avenues for both analytical and empirical
Constitutional Political Economy
I noted earlier that the primary contribution of the book The Calculus
of Consent was to impose a two-level framework on analyses of collective
action or to distinguish categorically what we may call ordinary, or
day-to-day, politics from constitutional politics. Indeed the subtitle
of that book was Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. In a
sense, this separation marked a major two-part division in the inclusive
research program in public choice, that is, between what we might call
positive political analysis, or positive public choice, and what we now
call "constitutional political economy."
Clearly, political-collective action, as resultant from individual
choices, takes place at two or more distinct stages or levels. There
are, first, the choices made within the existing set of rules,
inclusively described as the "constitution." And there are, second, the
choices from which these rules themselves emerge. Rules have as their
primary function the imposition of limits or constraints on actions that
might be taken. And economic theory, traditionally, has analyzed choices
made within constraints that are presumed to be exogenously imposed. Why
should persons seek to impose limits on their own actions?
Only recently have economists broken out of their natural mind-set-that
of not allowing for choices of constraints themselves. But recent
research has involved the choice of constraints, even on the behavior of
persons in noncollective settings. Important contributions have been
made in developing the theory of addiction, with drugs, tobacco, diet,
and gambling as relevant examples. The issues become categorically
different, however, as attention is shifted from the noncollective or
individualistic setting to that involving collective rules.2 In this
setting, persons desire to impose constraints on the behavior of agents
who act on behalf of the political group, not from any fear of
irrational behavior on their own part, but, instead, from the fear of
the prospect that their own preferences will be overruled, that their
own interests will be damaged. Constitutional rules have as their
central purpose the imposition of limits on the potential exercise of
2For general discussion, see Brennan and Buchanan (1985).
The "constitutional way of thinking" (Buchanan 2001) shifts attention to
the framework rules of political order as the object that commands or
secures consensus among members of the body politic. It is at this level
that the individual conceptually computes or calculates his own terms of
exchange with the state, or with his political authority. Persons may
agree that they are made better off by membership in the inclusive
structure described by the constitution, while, at the same time, they
may assess the impact of particular political actions to be contrary to
their own interests. A somewhat loose way of putting this point is to
say that in a constitutional democracy, persons owe loyalty to the
constitution rather than to the government, as such, no matter how
"democratic" such decisions might be. I have long argued that on
precisely this dimension American public attitudes are quite different
from those in Europe.
As research analysis, constitutional political economy involves
comparative assessment of alternative sets of constitutional rules, both
those in existence and those that might be introduced prospectively.
This analysis clearly has close affinity to recent efforts to introduce
the study of institutions, generally. There are, of course, both
positive and normative elements in this major research program.
Differing sets of rules are examined and predictions are advanced
concerning their working properties. And from such analysis proposals
for reform may be advanced-proposals that take the form of
constitutional changes, as opposed to proposals for particularized
policy thrusts that might emerge from analysis of ordinary or
Is Public Choice Ideologically Biased?
To this point, I have outlined the public choice research program as it
has developed and as it now exists in its two parts, that of positive
political science and constitutional political economy. How does the
politics that we observe work, given the existing constitutional
structure? And how might this politics be different under differing sets
of constitutional constraints? In its approach to answers to each of
these questions, public choice theory, as such, remains strictly neutral
in the scientific sense. What, then, is the source of the familiar
criticism to the effect that public choice, in itself, is ideologically
Again, it is necessary to appreciate the prevailing mind-set of social
scientists and philosophers at midcentury. The socialist ideology was
pervasive, and this ideology was supported by the allegedly neutral
research program called-"theoretical welfare economics," which
concentrated on the identification of the failures of observed markets
to meet idealized standards. In sum, this branch of inquiry offered
theories of market failure. But failure by comparison with what? The
implicit presumption was always that politicized corrections for market
failures would work perfectly. In other words, market failures were set
against an idealized politics.
Public choice then came along and provided analyses of politics, of the
behavior of persons in public choosing roles whether these be voters,
politicians, or bureaucrats, that were on all fours with those applied
to markets and to the behavior of persons as participants in markets.
These analyses necessarily exposed the essentially false comparison that
had described so much of both scientific and public attitudes. In a very
real sense, public choice became a set of theories of governmental
failures, as an offset to the theories of market failures that had
previously emerged from theoretical welfare economics. Or, as I put it
in the title of a lecture in Vienna in 1978, public choice may be
summarized by the three-word description "politics without romance."
The research program should have been interpreted as a correction more
of the scientific record than as the introduction of some illegitimate
anti-governmental ideology. Regardless of any prescientific ideological
stance, exposure to public choice analyses necessarily brings a more
critical attitude toward politicized nostrums to alleged socioeconomic
problems and issues. Public choice almost literally forces the critic to
be pragmatic in any comparison of proposed institutional structures.
There can be no presumption that politicized corrections for market
failures will accomplish the desired objectives.
Is Public Choice Immoral?
A more provocative criticism of the whole public choice research program
centers on the claim that it is immoral, at least in its behavioral
impact. The source of this charge lies in the transfer of the two
hard-core elements, methodological individualism and rational choice,
directly from economic theory to the analysis of politics. At one level
of abstraction, these two elements are themselves relatively empty of
empirical content. To model the behavior of persons, whether in markets
or in politics, as maximizing utilities, and as behaving rationally in
so doing, does not require specification of the arguments in utility
functions. Economists go further than this initial step, however, when
they identify and place arguments into the categories of "goods" and
"bads." Persons are then modeled as acting so as to maximize some index
of "goods" and to minimize some index of "bads."
More specifically, economic models of behavior include net wealth, an
externally measurable variable, as an important "good" that persons seek
to maximize. The moral condemnation-criticism of public choice is
centered on the presumed transference of this element of economic theory
over to political analysis. Those who find themselves in roles as public
choosers, whether as voters, as legislators, as political agents of any
sort, do not, it is suggested, behave in accordance with norms that are
appropriate to behavior in markets. Persons are differently motivated
when they are choosing "for the public" rather than for themselves in
private choice capacities. And it is both descriptively inaccurate and
morally questionable to assign self-interest motives to political
actors. Or so the criticism runs.
At base, this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what the whole
explanatory exercise is all about-a misunderstanding that may have been
fostered by the failure of economists to acknowledge the limits of their
efforts. The economic model of behavior, even if restricted to market
activity, should never be taken to provide the be-all and end-all of
scientific explanation. Persons act from many motives, and the economic
model concentrates attention only on one of the many possible forces
behind actions. To employ the model for prediction does, of course,
require the initial presumption that the identified "goods" that are
maximized are relatively important in the mix. Hypotheses that imply
that promised shifts in net wealth modify behavior in predictable ways
have not been readily falsifiable empirically.
At issue here is the degree to which net wealth, and promised shifts in
net wealth, may be used as explanatory incentives for the behavior of
persons in public choice roles. Public choice, as an inclusive research
program, incorporates the presumption that persons do not readily become
economic eunuchs as they shift from market to political participation.
The person who responds predictably to ordinary incentives in the
marketplace does not fail to respond at all when his role is shifted to
collective choice. The public choice theorist should, of course,
acknowledge that the strength, and predictive power, of the strict
economic model of behavior is somewhat mitigated as the shift is made
from private market to collective choice. Persons in political roles
may, indeed, act to a degree in terms of what they consider to be the
general interest. Such acknowledgment does not, however, in any way
imply that the basic explanatory model loses all of its predictive
potential or that ordinary incentives no longer matter.
What is left of the charge of immorality, once this much is
acknowledged? Critics are somehow left with the claim that persons
placed in political or public choice roles will themselves be led to act
as the economic model dictates if such models are used in the inclusive
explanatory exercise. In this light, it becomes immoral to model
political choice behavior as being responsive to ordinary incentives,
even if such an exercise is admittedly partially explanatory.3 We
should, therefore, proceed with analysis of politics under the illusion
that persons do indeed become "saints" as they shift to collective
choice roles. The positive value of hypocrisy may be recognized but
without elevating hypocrisy to an instrumental status in preserving
social stability. Democracy, or self-government generally, is surely
strong enough to allow for honesty in analysis of its own workings.
Balancing the Accounts
As noted, public choice as a research program has developed and matured
over the course of a full half century. It is useful to assess the
impact and effects of this program, both on thinking in the scientific
community and in the formation of public attitudes. By simple comparison
with the climate of opinion at half century, both the punditry and the
public are much more critical of politics and politicians, much more
cynical about the motivations of political action, much less naive in
thinking that political nostrums offer easy solutions to social
problems. And this shift in attitudes extends well beyond the loss of
belief of the efficacy in central planning, in socialism, a loss of
belief grounded in both historical regime failures and collapse of
intellectually idealized structures.
The question to be examined is not whether attitudes toward politics and
politicians have shifted, often dramatically, over the half century. The
question is, instead, what contribution has the research program of
public choice brought to this attitudinal change?
As I noted earlier, when we look retrospectively at the scientific and
public climates of discussion at midcentury, the failure of social
scientists to make efforts to understand and explain decision making in
the proportionately large collectivized sector of social interaction
seems difficult to comprehend. The gap in scientific effort now seems so
obvious that the development of public choice, and related programs,
becomes a natural and indeed necessary step in our always incomplete
knowledge about the world. Nonetheless, there were two obstacles to be
overcome in the intellectual community-obstacles that were, strangely,
both opposites and complements.
Broadly considered, the prevailing mind-set was socialist in the
underlying presupposition that politics offered the solution to social
problems. But there was a confusing amalgam of Marxism and ideal
political theory involved: Governments, as observed, were modeled by
Marxists as furthering class interests, but governments that might be
installed after the revolution, so to speak, would become both
omniscient and benevolent.
In some of their implicit modeling of political behavior aimed at
furthering special group or class interests, the Marxists seemed to be
closet associates in public choice, even as they rejected methodological
individualism. But how was the basic Marxist critique of politics, as
observed, to be transformed into the idealized politics of the
benevolent and omniscient super state? This question was simply left
glaringly unanswered. And the debates of the 1930s were considered by
confused economists of the time to have been won by socialists rather
3See Kelman (1987) and Brennan and Buchanan (1988).
their opponents, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both sides, to an
extent, neglected the relevance of incentives in motivating human
action, including action in the politicized sector.
The structure of ideas that were adduced in support of the emerging
Leviathan welfare state was logically flawed and could have been
maintained only through long-continued illusion. But, interestingly, the
failure, in whole or in part, of the socialist structure of ideas did
not come from within the scientific academy. Mises and Hayek were not
successful in their early efforts, and classical liberalism seemed to be
at its nadir at midcentury. Failure came, not from a collapse of an
intellectually defunct structure of ideas, but from the cumulative
record of nonperformance in the implementation of extended collectivist
schemes-nonperformance measured against promised claims, something that
could be observed directly. In other words, governments everywhere, in
both the socialist and the welfare states, overreached themselves, and
tried to do more than the institutional framework would support. This
record of failure came to be recognized widely, commencing in the 1960s
and accelerating in the 1970s.
Where was the influence of public choice in this history? Note
specifically that I do not claim that public choice, as a coherent set
of scientifically based theories of how politics works in practice,
dislodged the prevailing socialist mind-set in the academies and that
some subsequent recognition of the intellectual vulnerability exerted
its feedback on political reality. In common parlance, public choice was
not "ahead of the curve" in this respect.
What I do claim is that public choice exerted its influence, which was
major, in the provision of a coherent understanding and interpretation
of that which could be everywhere observed. The public directly observed
that collectivistic schemes were failing, that politicization did not
offer the promised correctives for any and all social ills, that
governmental intrusions often made things worse rather than better. How
could these direct observations be fitted into a satisfactory
understanding? Why did the nostrums promised fail to deliver?
Public choice came along and offered a foundation for such an
understanding. Armed with nothing more than the rudimentary insights
from public choice, persons could understand why, once established,
bureaucracies tend to grow apparently without limit and without
connection to initially promised functions. They could understand why
pork-barrel politics dominated the attention of legislators; why there
seems to be a direct relationship between the overall size of government
and the investment in efforts to secure special concessions from
government (rent seeking); why the tax system is described by the
increasing number of special credits, exemptions, and loopholes; why
balanced budgets are so hard to secure; why strategically placed
industries secure tariff protection.
A version of the old fable about the king's nakedness may be helpful
here. Public choice is like the small boy who said that the king really
has no clothes. Once he said this, everyone recognized that the king's
nakedness had been recognized but that no one had really called
attention to this fact. Public choice has helped the public to take off
their rose-colored glasses when they observe the behavior of politicians
and the working of politics.
Let us be careful not to claim too much, however. Public choice did not
emerge from some profoundly new insight, some new discovery, some social
science miracle. Public choice, in its basic insights into the workings
of politics, incorporates a presupposition about human nature that
differs little, if at all, from that which informed the thinking of
James Madison at the American founding. The essential scientific wisdom
of the 18th century, of Adam Smith and classical political economy and
of the American Founders, was lost through two centuries of intellectual
folly. Public choice does little more than incorporate a rediscovery of
this wisdom and its implications into analyses and appraisal of modern
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