Saturday, January 19, 2013

The voice of public choice

January 19, 2013

A list of things that Americans judge more favourably than Congress, according to Public Policy Polling, a survey firm, includes colonoscopies, root canals, lice and France. America seems to have stumbled from economic crisis to political paralysis. That would have come as little surprise to James Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist and the architect of “public-choice theory”, who died on January 9th, aged 93.

Mr Buchanan was an outlier in his field. He eschewed the profession’s embrace of complex models and maths in favour of serious reflection on political philosophy (leading some to dismiss him, wrongly, as a lightweight). A Tennessean by birth, he mistrusted north-eastern elites and spent most of his career at universities in Virginia. He challenged his profession’s casual treatment of variables such as economic cost, which he considered to be a deeply subjective matter. He adopted heterodoxies such as a 100% inheritance tax, on egalitarian grounds. Yet his greatest contribution was in the realm of political economy.

His interest in the workings of the state reflected its growing importance. From having only a minimal role in pre-industrial days, Leviathan came to control swathes of economic activity as the 20th century progressed. National-security demands were partly responsible. Government responses to market failures, from unscrupulous business practices to the trauma of the Depression, also played their part. As demands on the state grew, so too did the need to understand its behaviour.

Mr Buchanan was one of a small group of economists wondering whether the state was up to the task. Untrammelled markets may fail—by producing more pollution than society as a whole would prefer, for example. That creates the potential for welfare-improving government intervention, such as a tax on pollution. Yet there is no guarantee a state will get it right. Whether interventions are justified, Buchanan pointed out, depends on whether government officials are motivated by self-interest as well as a sense of public duty. Weighing up the pros and cons of policy choices requires an unsentimental view of government actions, a position he called “politics without romance”. In exploring this he helped create public-choice theory.