Understanding Public Choice Theory

Tibor R. Machan

Whenever public officials discuss managing affairs of state, I am baffled that they fail to pay heed to public choice theory. This is an idea for which the late, great James Buchanan earned his Nobel Prize; he presented it with his friend and colleague Gordon Tullock in the book The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (University of Michigan Press, 1962). The gist of public choice theory is that so-called public servants—politicians, bureaucrats, and their colleagues—tend to promote goals of their own even as they claim to be serving the public interest.

The public, after all, comprises a vast number of citizens whose interests vary enormously, so it is pure myth that there exists a “public interest” that can be served by public servants. Intentionally or not, all public servants are serving private and special interests. They hope that their calculations of how to line these up will assure their reelection or reappointment. Many earnestly believe that somehow along the way they will manage to figure out what is best for the country—or state or town or other body they serve. (Or they may be crooks!) So politicians keep pretending that they have overcome the hurdles facing them and assert that they are public servants instead of folks whose objectives are influenced by lobbyists representing innumerable, often conflicting, private and special interests. In the final analysis, the so-called public interest is really the interests public officials like best or consider important.

When put to the test, even the democratic process has not been able to sort out what the public interest really is. The best approximation was put forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, where he identified securing the protection of our basic rights as the purpose for which government is established. This is the public interest.

I am confident that if one keeps the above in mind, one will have a clearer picture of what is going on all the time in Washington, D.C., and other centers of political power. If legislators came to terms with public choice theory and learned the lessons it teaches, they would realize that the only way to serve the public interest 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, among their own families, friends, and fellow citizens.

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


Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University

“The gist of public choice theory is that so-called public servants . . . promote goals of their own even as they claim to be serving the public interest.”

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