Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Public Choice, or Politics with Lust?

James M. Buchanan, a founding father of Public Choice Theory, said that “public choice may be summarized by the three-word description, ‘politics without romance’”.  He also said that it should be regarded as a research program rather than a discipline or sub-discipline of economics (J.M. Buchanan 2003).   As a matter of fact, the term emerged after bringing together economists, political scientists, sociologists and scholars from other disciplines.  Some references to Public Choice Theory regard it as a tool for understanding behavior and decision making.     But, what does it really mean?  I won’t profess to be an economist, let alone an individual that has a firm grasp on economics, but I’ll share what I understand it to mean.
First, Public Choice Theory is a tool for understanding what drives decision making and seems to be rooted in individual good/gain as the driver for decisions.   As an economic model, it focuses on one of many factors that may influence decisions – personal gain.  This is where lust comes in.   Though Buchanan referred to “politics without romance”, I propose that “politics with lust” is a better description.   The lust in politics can be categorized as those pressures, motives, and temptations that lure decision maker to act in certain ways (based on self-interest).  The source of this lust might be lobbyists, promise of securing votes for re-election, securing colleague votes on pet projects, a future career, etc. – which motivate decisions out of self interest.
Gene Balas (2012) wrote that “it explains how voters, politicians and bureaucrats all act in rational self-interest, but which results in political decision-making outcomes that conflict with the preferences of the general public”.  This leads to the paradox of Public Choice Theory.   According to Balas “individuals acting in a rational fashion, focused on their own self-interests, can lead to a very poor outcome for the nation as a whole”. 
If you’re interested in reading more from Buchanan or Balas on Public Choice Theory, here are some useful links.  Happy reading!

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