Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

67. Public Choice Theory

Note: This post is the sixty-seventh in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Here's Wikipedia on Public Choice Theory,
'In economics, public choice theory is the use of modern economic tools to study problems that are traditionally in the province of political science. From the perspective of political science, it may be seen as the subset of positive political theory which deals with subjects in which material interests are assumed to predominate.

In particular, it studies the behavior of politicians and government officials as mostly self-interested agents and their interactions in the social system either as such or under alternative constitutional rules. These can be represented a number of ways, including standard constrained utility maximization, game theory, or decision theory. Public choice analysis has roots in positive analysis ("what is") but is often used for normative purposes ("what ought to be"), to identify a problem or suggest how a system could be improved by changes in constitutional rules.'

In discussing Public Choice Theory, we need to be careful to remember the two different self-interests that we discussed a while back:

1) Self-interest in the sense that people just want to accumulate more money and more stuff for themselves and,
2) Self-interest in the sense that when people decide to do something, they choose to do whatever it is they prefer to do.

Now, the first definition of self-interest clearly is not accurate as a description of human behaviour, especially in political contexts, and the second definition is a fairly useless tautology, so the question is then how this concept of self-interest can be made useful.

James Buchanan, one of the founders and most famous advocates of social choice theory takes on the tricky question of self-interest in this summary of public choice theory, stating,
"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."

You can see the dilemma Buchanan faces. On the one hand, he acknowledges that people are less inclined to be self-interested in a public setting than they are in a private marketplace, but he can't concede too much on this front or the theory won't really be able to predict anything because it is too unsophisticated to be able to account for the non-monetary motivations people might have (whether for the public interest, or even for self-interest in non-monetary form (e.g. glory or praise).

One element that sometimes gets mentioned and sometimes seems to get lost in public choice work is the very different role played by self-interest in the political realm vs. the private realm.

Within the economic realm, assuming it is contained within the sort of bounds we discussed earlier in our recounting of the work of David Gauthier and Walter Schultz (be honest, shun force, come to voluntary agreement, invest for productive purposes, excluding interactions within a corporation etc.) the pursuit of self-interest can be seen to lead to a socially optimal outcome.

But within the political realm, the pursuit of self-interest is almost always a bad thing. Any attempt to personally make a material gain via politics is almost by definition trading and thus a violation of the 'shun trading' precept which is one of the most critical in the guardian syndrome.

One of the weaknesses of public choice theorists (visible in the quote above from Buchanan) in my opinion, is that they bring over an idea about how commonplace the pursuit of self-interest is from their work in economics without recognizing just how different the political world is.

You can see this in the quote above, where Buchanan says,
"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."

Buchanan is sophisticated enough to pay lip service to the difference between politics and the marketplace, but he is unable to admit more than that the pursuit of self-interest might be 'somewhat mitigated' by the move to a political world. He himself realizes the moral difference between self-interest in the marketplace and self-interest in politics, and I suspect that he believes that he would not take advantage of political office to enrich himself, yet he theorizes on the basis that most people make little distinction between serving the public and serving themselves. He comments that critics of 'public choice theory' think "We should, therefore, proceed with analysis of politics under the illusion that persons do indeed become 'saints' as they shift to collective choice roles."

At it's best, work in public choice theory resembles the sort taken on by Elinor Ostrom - empirical work that attempts to model how people accomplish collective action and what works and what doesn't, neither neglecting the role played by the pursuit of monetary gain by individuals, nor treating it as the only factor at work.

At it's worst, work in public choice theory resembles wingnut internet diatribes about how all government is evil and every government employee cares for nothing about scamming the system for their own gain, and if we only lived in an anarchist society, all would be well.

Near the end of 'Systems of Survival', Jane Jacobs recounts a poem by Lao Tzu,
"When people lost sight of the way to live
Came codes of love and honesty
Learning came, charity came
Hypocrisy took charge;
When difference weakened family ties
Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons
And when lands were disrupted and misgoverned
Came ministers commended as loyal"

Jacobs was worried that her own analysis was just a symptom of moral decay, with what was once too obvious to be worth analyzing, now becoming clearer in its absence. Sometimes I think Public Choice Theory is another step down the same road, a study of corruption in politics that treats the corruption as 'reality' with moral behaviour just a fantasy world inhabited by 'saints'.

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