Thursday , May 28 2020
Home / Jason Brennan /What Is Public Choice?

What Is Public Choice?

Summary:
Here’s some silliness from Henry Farrell. Why is public choice specifically unhelpful here? Rather than starting from the many definitions of public choice offered by its enemies, I’ll begin with the definition provided by one of its major proponents. As described by the late Charles Rowley, longtime editor of the journal Public Choice, the public choice approach is a ““program of scientific endeavor that exposed government failure coupled to a programme of moral philosophy that supported constitutional reform designed to limit government.” In other words, it is not a neutral research program, but one that has a clear political philosophy and set of aims. Bluntly put, it starts from governments bad, markets good, and further assumes that the intersection between governments

Topics:
Jason Brennan considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Jason Brennan writes The Two Big News Cases and Philosophy

Garreth Bloor writes The “Missing Element” of Economics Amidst Crisis

Wolf Richter writes The Unemployment Rate for Each State, from 7.9% in Connecticut to 28.2% in Nevada

Jason Brennan writes How Government Leaders Violated Their Epistemic Duties During the SARS-CoV-2 Crisis

Here’s some silliness from Henry Farrell.

Why is public choice specifically unhelpful here? Rather than starting from the many definitions of public choice offered by its enemies, I’ll begin with the definition provided by one of its major proponents. As described by the late Charles Rowley, longtime editor of the journal Public Choice, the public choice approach is a ““program of scientific endeavor that exposed government failure coupled to a programme of moral philosophy that supported constitutional reform designed to limit government.” In other words, it is not a neutral research program, but one that has a clear political philosophy and set of aims. Bluntly put, it starts from governments bad, markets good, and further assumes that the intersection between governments and markets (where private interests are able to “capture” government) is very bad indeed.


Forget about public choice for a second. Suppose you wanted to know what a research program or subfield of econ is generally about. Here are two methods you might use to figure it out:

1. Examine the extant research in that subfield to see what it is characteristic of it.
2. Quote one particular prominent dude’s definition and characterization, and take it as canonical, even if other, equally or more prominent people in that subfield offer completely different definitions and characterizations.

Obvious 1 > 2. On its face, 2 is just dumb. (If you want to go with definitions offered by prominent dudes, you’d want to at least look at lots of definitions, rather than simply pick one.) But 2 is ideologically convenient for Farrell, while 1 is not, so that’s what he goes with.

If you actually read public choice theory, you see that it’s just the tools of economics applied to collective decision-making and to the traditional areas associated with political science. That’s what it actually is. As proof, I submit all issues of Public Choice ever published. QED.

Sure, public choice theorists are often interested in government failure in much the same way Henry is interested in market failure, but a large part of that was because of straight up silliness in econ textbooks around the time public choice got started. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was common to first identify a market failure, then note an ideally competent and properly motivated government could fix it, and then argue that as such actual governments should be empowered to fix the actual failures. Public choice theorists pointed out this argument–which pervaded econ textbooks at the time and which still is common among the cartoonish ideologues at Crooked Timber–is incomplete, because we still have to ask whether real-life governments will do a good job fixing the problem.

I expect this kind of ideologically-motivated pseudo-exegesis from Corey Robin, but I thought at least Farrell was better than that. Guess not.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *