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!