“Public Choice” -Liberty Vocabulary


If you listen to political or economic podcasts, read blogs and journals, or go to lectures, the phrased “public choice” will be bandied about.

Once we get a working knowledge of any topic (say….econ or politics) we often stop learning terminology, because we can gather the gist of what is being said by the context.

Pubic Choice is a microeconomic tool used to critique political structures, especially constitutions and the like.

It is a peer-reviewed science, and tries to understand, in economic terms, why people do what they do and vote the way they do.

How does consensus work? And how much unanimity do you need? Does the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) affect group decisions, and if so, how? Is utility for the majority, or a sense of justice which drives most people in public decision-making?

One of the problems with “majority rules” voting is that, scientifically speaking, decisions are more often than not favored which are less beneficial and cost more, rather than the other way around. Hello, $20 trillion deficit. 

Public Choice thought has exposed the idea of rent seeking (which I will explore soon in Life & Liberty). Rent seeking happens when incentives get mixed up when the government can offer certain advantages to certain individuals or groups. These protected entities tend to become monopolies. Thus the government, rather than protecting us from monopolies, is often tempted (by self interest) to go on multiplying and creating them, knowing that people would rather earn rent (cash flow from a stake in something) than work for money.

Public Choice thought tends to have an anti-statist bent, mostly because of its ongoing critique of the misplaced incentives in public bureaucracies as opposed to those in private corporations. Bureaucrats owe their allegiance to those above them who appoint them, and they lead a large, protected class of civil servants below them. Their tendency (behaviorally) is to please their appointers rather than the public which they “swear” to serve. Whereas no one on the private sector food chain, from CEO to laborer, can afford to take her/his eyes off of the well-being of the customer for very long.

It is especially controversial right now, because of Nancy McLean’s jeremiad against libertarianism, Democracy in Chains.

MacLean focuses on James Buchanan, her “bete noir,” who was prominent proponent of Public Choice thought. Buchanan and four other Public Choice scholars have won Nobel Prizes in Economics, including Vernon Smith whom I was privileged to meet in 2016 at Acton University.

MacLean sees a vast right-wing conspiracy, masquerading as science, which uses Public Choice data as a way to keep African Americans from voting. She presents no evidence for this; in fact, many Public Choice scholars were strident activists against Apartheid in South Africa.

This should be enough to get you started. But certainly not enough to explain it. Have a look around and let me know what you find.

For a great, simple slide show on Public Choice, click HERE.

For more info, check out the Wikipedia entry on Public Choice.

There is a Journal called Public Choice.