Peter Boettke describes Gordon Tullock’s public choice approach on p. 134 of his new book, Living Economics:
Politics is about concentrating benefits on well-organized and well-informed interest groups, and dispersing costs on the unorganized and ill-informed masses.
That’s precisely why non-political solutions to social problems are desirable wherever possible. When the universal human impulses of self-interest, rationality, and maximizing utility find themselves in an institutional environment like Congress or City Hall, corruption and special privilege are the results almost every time.
Markets respect no special interest. This is why failing companies swarm to Washington; government exists to cater to them.
The good folks at the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs have just released an excellent book by Eammon Butler, Public Choice: A Primer. You can order a copy or download a free PDF version at this link. Public choice is essentially applying the economic way of thinking to politics; a volume in the collected works ofpublic choice founding father Gordon Tullock is even titled The Economics of Politics.
Most economics is about private decision-making by individuals or firms. Politicians, regulators, and voters make much more public choices, hence the name of the field. Many people think that politicians and regulators are different from other people. Instead of acting selfishly, they act in the public interest. Public choice depends on the controversial claim that people are people; government acts selfishly, too.
Politicians want to be re-elected. Bureaucrats want to enlarge their mission and budget, and to get that next promotion. These very human concerns affect the decisions they make and how they do their jobs. In short, just as there is market failure, there is government failure. That’s why Butler’s new primer should be required reading for everyone who works on Capitol Hill. If it doesn’t cause a wave of resignations, staffers would at least have a more realistic perception of how their colleagues behave, as well as the people who vote for them.
Other good public choice primers include William Mitchell’s Beyond Politics and Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon Brady’s Government Failure (free PDF)