Public Choice Theory

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A school that starts with anti-government and pro-market ideology to find that government cannot work and markets do. Surprise! Economics for the plutocracy.See also Rational Choice Theory for the usual methodology.


Blacklisted Economics Professor Found Dead: NC Publishes His Last Letter [More...]
A brilliant savaging of Public Choice Theory, and a beautiful explanation of why so many economists are pro-business hacks.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (book, online) (8 links)
“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be” – NPR
Economic Ideas You Should Forget (book)
By discussing problematic theoretical assumptions and drawing on the latest empirical research, 71 authors question specific hypotheses and reject major economic ideas from the “Coase Theorem” to “Say’s Law” and “Bayesianism.”
James Buchanan (8 links)
One of the more insidious academic libertarians, a Nobel prize winner, and a favorite of the Koch brothers.
Libertarian Delusions: Exposing the Flaws in Libertarian Thinking [More...]
Identifies problems with self-ownership, the idea of eliminating politics, the public choice viewpoint and blanket opposition to state action.
Steven Pressman on Public Choice Theory [More...]
Seven fundamental problems with public choice theory that make it look like a ridiculous exercise.
The Master Class on the Make [More...]
"In marking Calhoun’s political philosophy as the crucial antecedent of public choice theory, Tabarrok and Cowen unwittingly confirmed what critics have long maintained: libertarianism is a political philosophy shot through with white supremacy. Public choice theory, a technical language nominally about human behavior and incentives, helps ensure that blacks remain shackled."
Why and How the Koch Network Uses Disinformation to Thwart Democracy [More...]
The most complete (yet succinct) overview of how the Kochs made their libertarianism, a tiny fringe movement, succeed in changing our political climate and beliefs. Chapter 5 of The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States.
“Public” choice [More...]
Henry Farrell's savage takedown of the blindness, ideology, and biases of Public Choice Theory.


The absurdity of public-choice theory is captured by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the following little scenario: "Can you direct me to the railway station?" asks the stranger. "Certainly," says the local, pointing in the opposite direction, towards the post office, "and would you post this letter for me on your way?" "Certainly," says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing.
Linda McQuaig, "All You Can Eat"
[...] public choice theory is simply refuted by the evidence, something that people do not note nearly often enough. Political scientists have known – and empirically confirmed – that voters and politicians mostly act in what they perceive to be the public interest, rather than for selfish gains. This isn’t to say that there is no truth to public choice theory, but evidence suggests it is more appropriate to model politicians and voters as public servants who are buffeted by special interest than as selfish maximisers who occasionally stumble upon a beneficial policy. The result is that democracy is far more effective a tool for translating collective interests into policy than libertarians might suggest.
UnlearningEcon, "An FAQ for Libertarians"
Saying ‘governments can’t create wealth’ is a sweeping, largely vacuous statement based on a superficial zero sum view of taxation as being ‘extracted’ from the private sector. In fact, taxation is just one prong of a symbiotic relationship that exists between the private and public sectors. If we take the definition of wealth as the creation of valuable resources, it’s clear that, say, teaching and infrastructure ‘create wealth.’ We’ve already seen just how large a source of wealth the government can be through its funding of research and development. Furthermore, many state-backed institutions are historically a prerequisite for substantial wealth creation to take place at all.
UnlearningEcon, "An FAQ for Libertarians"
… Economic doctrines always come to us as propaganda. This is bound up with the very nature of the subject and to pretend that it is not so in the name of ‘pure science’ is a very unscientific refusal to accept the facts.
Joan Robinson, in Marx, Marshall And Keynes
Put another way, public choice theory turned the Marxist theory of the state on its head. As opposed to wishing to free the masses from a state controlled by the capitalist elite, Buchanan wished to free the capitalist elite from a state controlled by the unruly masses.
Andrew Hartman, "The Master Class on the Make"
Buchanan proposed that Virginia could finesse the question of full compliance with Brown and avoid leaving the impression that the state wished to revert to crude Jim Crow standards of race privilege. Buchanan’s innovative solution was the introduction of school vouchers... On paper, at least, Buchanan was advocating a market-based, seemingly race-neutral policy solution. In effect, however, it allowed for the continued perpetuation of segregation. For example, Virginia’s Prince Edwards County shuttered its public schools in 1959 while doling out vouchers to students who attended private schools that only accepted white children. As a result, black children in Prince Edwards County went without formal education for more than five years.
Andrew Hartman, "The Master Class on the Make"
Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density.
Charles Stross, "Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire"
Where public choice people seem to perceive a “public” that collectively wants to return to work, I see something different – a set of asymmetric power relations that public choice scholars are systematically blind to in the ways that Chris, Alex Gourevitch and Corey identified eight years ago, when they wrote about “bleeding heart libertarians” (a constituency that strongly overlaps with public choice).
Henry Farrell, "“Public” choice"
Rather than starting from the many definitions of public choice offered by its enemies, I’ll begin with the definition provided by one of its major proponents. As described by the late Charles Rowley, longtime editor of the journal Public Choice, the public choice approach is a ““program of scientific endeavor that exposed government failure coupled to a programme of moral philosophy that supported constitutional reform designed to limit government.” In other words, it is not a neutral research program, but one that has a clear political philosophy and set of aims. Bluntly put, it starts from governments bad, markets good, and further assumes that the intersection between governments and markets (where private interests are able to “capture” government) is very bad indeed.
Henry Farrell, "“Public” choice"
In particular, public choice notoriously tends to define questions of private power out of existence, treating them as freely entered contracts that hence reflect the interests of the contractees. This is why Mancur Olson accused his public choice colleagues of “monodiabolism” and an “almost utopian lack of concern about other problems” than the unrestrained state. Public choice economists tend to wave away private power as being irrelevant to the understanding of outcomes, except when it acquires the additional force of state coercion.
Henry Farrell, "“Public” choice"
There is an interesting affinity between public choice and Marxism, another analytic approach with an associated political program. Both agree on the awful things that can happen when government and business interests are in cahoots, even if each sees a different party as the serpent in its paradise.
Henry Farrell, "“Public” choice"