Public Choice: rational ignorance, pork and rent-seeking

[The] Idea that when people go to the polls they are knowledgeable is ludicrous.

That is just one of many illuminations from Don Boudreaux, chair of the department of economics at George Mason, in the recent Econtalk discussion  “Don Boudreaux on Public Choice”. One of the firm results of Public Choice Theory is often expressed in the shorthand “rational ignorance”. This result is a consequence of two facts — that information is not free, while the deciding impact of an individual’s vote is nearly zero. So the payoff from investing in the study and critical thinking required to place an informed vote is effectively zero, while the cost is relatively high. I.e., just to study a single issue (say energy policy) requires many hours of time that alternatively could have been invested in family time, or in better job qualifications, or …

What’s the point? The problem is concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. A smaller government is less likely to do harm than a bigger government. It is impossible for voters to know what the federal government is up to. In practice they do not know the impact nor effectiveness of what competing politicians are proposing. A smaller government presents less opportunity for politicians to divert taxpayer’s earnings to pay off supporters (pork). A smaller government presents less opportunity for rent-seeking by interests that influence government to provide them special benefits.

I recommend the short summary of Public Choice at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Here is a descriptive excerpt:

(…) In modeling the behavior of individuals as driven by the goal of utility maximization—economics jargon for a personal sense of well-being—economists do not deny that people care about their families, friends, and community. But public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and, more important, that the motivations of people in the political process are no different from those of people in the steak, housing, or car market. They are the same human beings, after all. As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.

Don’t forget that the primary motivation of politicians is to stay in office, to get re-elected. Forget “public good”, that is just romance. Public Choice is “politics without the romance” (James Buchanan).

The Lessons of Public Choice

One key conclusion of public choice is that changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not produce major changes in policy outcomes. Electing better people will not, by itself, lead to much better government. Adopting the assumption that all individuals, be they voters, politicians, or bureaucrats, are motivated more by self-interest than by public interest evokes a Madisonian perspective on the problems of democratic governance. Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules under which people pursue their own objectives. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (Federalist, no. 51).

Institutional problems demand institutional solutions. If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective in curbing profligacy than “throwing the rascals out.” Given the problems endemic to majority-rule voting, public choice also suggests that care must be exercised in establishing the domains of private and collective choice; that it is not necessarily desirable to use the same voting rule for all collective decisions; and that the public’s interest can be best protected if exit options are preserved by making collective choices at the lowest feasible level of political authority.

For more resources on informed voting, I highly recommend Bryan Caplan’s 2007 book Myth of the Rational Voter.

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