Public Choice Theory is Overlooked

Public Choice Theory is Overlooked

Tibor R. Machan

Whenever public officials promise to manage affairs of state, I am baffled how they fail to pay heed to public choice theory. This is the idea, for which the late, great James Buchanan, earned his Nobel Prize (an idea he developed with his friend and colleague Gordon Tullock in the book The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962].).

The gist of it is that public servants, so called–politicians, bureaucrats, and their colleagues–tend to promote goals of their own even as they claim to be serving the public interest. And this is not very difficult to grasp.

The public is, after all, a vast number of citizens whose interests vary enormously so it is a pure myth that there is a public interest that can be served by public servants. Given this plain fact, whose interest will public servants serve? The interest they consider important.

In the last analysis the so called public interest is really the private interests public officials like best. Even the democratic process cannot sort out what the public interest is. (The best approximation is put forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence where he identifies securing the protection of our basic rights as the purpose for which government is established, i.e., the public interest.)

Despite the hopelessness of pursuing and serving the public interest, politicians and their cheerleaders keep pretending that they have managed to overcome the hurdles facing them and assert that they are public servants instead of folks whose objectives are determined by lobbyists who represent innumerable, often conflicting, private and special interests.

I am confident that if one keeps the above in mind, one will have a clear picture of what is going on all the time in Washington, D.C. and other centers of political power. Intentionally or not, the public servants are all serving private and special interests and are hoping that their own calculation of how to line these up will assure their reelection. Because they all believe, earnestly, that somehow they will manage to figure out what is best for the country–or nation or state or the people or some equally nebulous body they claim they want to serve. (Or they are crooks!)

If they came to terms with public choice theory and learned the lesson it teaches, they would realize that the only public interest they can possibly serve is to secure the protection of the right to liberty of all citizens of the country. These citizens will then figure out what is in their own interest and pursue it good and hard in their own sphere of influence, with their own families, friends and fellows.

Until and unless this is acknowledged and implemented by our so called public servants, there will simply continue a Hobbesian war of all against all to get a more or less sizable portion of the public wealth. And even the current worries about the national debt can best be understood as a result of this failure to appreciate the implications of public choice theory (as well as the tragedy of the commons).

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