Jeffrey Friedman on Public Choice theory

He writes,

Public-choice theory rules out interpretive charity in advance. All that is left is the imputation of bad motives to one’s political opponents.

. . .Actions may be objectively evil, but subjectively, everyone is doing what they think is somehow justified. Attributions of (subjectively) evil motives end the process of scholarship before it can begin. In studying politics, we want to know (among other things) why evil results may flow even from good motives—as an unintended consequence.

Read the whole post. There is a strong temptation to believe in asymmetric insight, meaning that you claim to know the other person’s motives better than they know themselves. This is a temptation that one ought to try to resist.

Friedman is somewhat hard on public choice theory. I have been hard on it myself. Still, it has some value, as when it predicts that public policies in areas like housing or health care will tend toward subsidizing demand and restricting supply.

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14 Responses to Jeffrey Friedman on Public Choice theory

  1. B.B. says:

    He really seems to be missing the point.

    Public choice sees politicians and government bureaucrats in the same light as economists view businessmen. Self-interested. That is the not the same as “greedy” or “evil.”

    Voters also seek self-interest. The voting booth is not different from the grocery store.

    Self-interest is not the same thing as money. Economists can be narrow. Self-interest can involve the pursuit of power, domination, control. It can involve fame, or access to sex. The same can be true in corporate politics.

    Some people are motivated by pure ideology, and not money. Are they self-interested? Are they charitable and idealistic? Lenin, Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden were motivated by pure ideology. Seeking a fortune is not the worst thing in the world by a long-shot.

    Ayn Rand had paradoxical views. She admired heroic businessmen who sought self-interest. But her government characters were mostly evil people, who were also pursuing their self-interest. She had a very uncharitable view of those in the government, but she admired the American military. A lot of libertarians have adopted her uncharitable view of the opposition. That is unfortunate. It is very different from Hayek, who dedicated The Road to Serfdom to the socialists of the world.

    Finally, it is wrong to equate libertarianism with public choice economics. Libertarians don’t seem to have been that influenced by Buchanan or public choice. And there is no reason that a leftist can’t work in the field of public choice.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m trying to apply interpretive charity to Friedman’s essay, but this sentence is mysterious to me:
    “If political actors are in it for themselves, then it is logical to expect them to do more harm than good—not unintentionally, but deliberately.”

    How does it follow that selfish behavior leads to more harm than good? Isn’t he committing the same error (preemptive moralization of the word “selfish”)?

    Interpretive charity is indeed quite difficult.

  3. Edgar says:

    Yes, we can all agree that everyone has good intentions. The reason politics seldom rises above mere bigotry is the refusal to extend this presumption to those with whom we disagree. Intentions, good or bad, however, do nothing to inform policy analysis. For policy analysis, we must look at the winners and losers created by a policy decision and then moralize about whether the losers deserve to lose and the winners deserve to win. In the end, all is fatuous nonsense and brute political force prevails.

    • Weir says:

      If they didn’t deserve to lose initially, they deserve it now, as far as we’re concerned. Isn’t that how the mind works? First we cause harm to someone, and then we pretend they deserve it. They didn’t have it coming, until they did. We’ve punished them, and we’ve hurt them, so they must be guilty of something. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made them suffer. We don’t call them our victims. We call them criminals and cheats, enemies of society, enemies of the people. We hanged them, so they must be Kulaks.

  4. Russell Hanneken says:

    Dan Klein has a great essay on this subject. In the concluding section he writes,

    Does the culture theory suggested here conflict with theories that portray political actors as cynical egotists? Not necessarily. We just need to make clear that when we offer a description based on assumptions of self-seeking behavior, we present the description as one, simplified description of the matter, and not the one that the political participants themselves believe. When Milton Friedman said we can describe the growth of a plant as behavior aimed at maximizing sunlight exposure subject to constraints, he certainly was not saying that the plant saw it that way. Baldly cynical theories (the Public Choice perspective) can give useful insights into the behavior of real people who are in fact not cynical.

  5. Philo says:

    Friedman writes: “Buchanan asserted that people are just as self-interested in politics as in other areas of life.[6] So, depending on how much we think people are self-interested in the economic sphere, we should expect an equal amount of selfishness in politics—not benevolence. If political actors are in it for themselves, then it is logical to expect them to do more harm than good—not unintentionally, but deliberately.[7]”

    As Friedman rightly remarks, Buchanan’s assertion is implausible a priori, since “the norms of economic activity encourage self-interest while the norms of politics do not.” For most people, political actions–voting, speaking out for or against a candidate or a policy, donating to a cause, etc.–occupy a very different context from “economic activities”–shopping for a good or service, deciding how much to save, bargaining for a raise, etc. With little personally at stake in the “political” sphere, people must be relying on considerations other than of self-interest. But there is an exception: professional politicians, both those who run for office and those who function as support personnel for candidates and office-holders. These people have the same incentives to consult their self interest that we routinely find in the economic sphere. Contrary to what Friedman says, this does not mean that “it is logical to expect them to do more harm than good”: while they are trying to do good for themselves, they are not trying (as an end in itself) to harm anyone, so their actions might very well do good overall. But, by the same token, they might, after all, do net harm; and this is more likely in politics than in the market place. Market actors, though they need not and usually do not try to do good to other people, must respect other’s rights–at least, those rights that are officially recognized–thereby limiting the harm they can so. In contract, political office-holders determine what rights others have (that will be recognized by the government), and have every incentive constantly to reduce those rights–to refuse official recognition to some that formerly were recognized–thus rendering people more subject to office-holders’ power.

    As for “the norms of political activity,” these apply quite differently to politicians and non-politicians. There are the norms that must be publicly professed by professionals, and which non-professions apply to themselves; then there are norms that are actually followed in practice by the professionals–not at all the same body of norms.

    • Weir says:

      Jeffrey Friedman treats this like a puzzle. But it’s been answered. Macaulay explained the reason for it a couple hundred years ago: “The division of labour would be no blessing if those by whom a thing is done were to pay no attention to the opinion of those for whom it is done.”

  6. BillD says:

    I feel sorry for Niskanen, the man, not the Center. Whatever divide they are trying to bridge they are failing to do so.

    As Dave said “Interpretive charity is indeed quite difficult.”

    Human nature is about the balance of tribe vs. outsiders, self vs. group, and/or “masculine” vs “feminine” values. See: Haidt.

    All Public Choice theory is about is recognizing that people respond to those trade-offs and incentives. There are no unicorns.

  7. Slocum says:

    “There is a strong temptation to believe in asymmetric insight, meaning that you claim to know the other person’s motives better than they know themselves. This is a temptation that one ought to try to resist.”

    It’s a puzzle. I think, for example, of some of Warren Meyer’s posts about his dealings with the Forest Service. I don’t doubt that people go into the Forest Service because they sincerely love the environment and outdoor recreation. And yet the Forest Service, as an organization, behaves in ways Public Choice theory would predict. This wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it’s pretty close:

    You really don’t have to infer bad motives by individuals to get bad behavior and results from government organizations.

    • Handle says:

      An interesting experience is going to one of those “Town Hall Meetings” between a senior government official and many ground or mid-level employees. The employees are encouraged to voice their frustrations and complaints, and many take the bait. A lot of this is just time-wasting griping with no implications for anyone else. But on the rare occasion when someone expresses a legitimate frustration with an organization-wide problem (of which there are, of course, myriads), the explanation usually involves the difficulty of getting civil servants from other parts of the government to do what is necessary to resolve the issue.

      These are pretty much the same complaints from people in the private sector about the government and bureaucracy. In other words, even public bureaucrats use a version of public choice reasoning to explain the frustrations they experience with other public bureaucrats. Civil servants know civil servants best. It’s just totally absurd for people outside the government to try and support the legitimacy of technocratic Mandarinism and policies needing a powerful, central state to concoct these defenses of civil servant intentions, motivations, and public spiritedness that civil servants themselves would laugh at.

  8. Weir says:

    This has got to be the least plausible claim that Jeffrey Friedman’s making, that

    “the norms of economic activity encourage self-interest while the norms of politics do not.”

    But people trade with each other willingly, voluntarily, consensually. There’s reciprocity. A back and forth. People in a market co-operate with each other like human beings. It’s not as if one person’s only an ox or a living tool or a chess piece. They’re all people with consciousness and rights and interests, so they negotiate. They both get a say. Government doesn’t work like that. Government is done to its victims against their will. The interest of the victim doesn’t count for anything in politics.

  9. Rick Hull says:

    I find Friedman’s conclusion to hinge on this paragraph, and it’s problematic:

    However, while libertarians have been profoundly affected by the Austrian and Chicago idea that unintended consequences are ubiquitous, neither Austrian nor Chicago economists ever proposed a theory to explain why this should be the case; or why unintended consequences, when they do occur, are more likely to be harmful than beneficial. Such a theory would be about politics as much as economics: it would explain why political decision makers are likelier to do harm than good. Instead of such a theory, libertarians adopted a different theory of politics: Buchanan’s theory of public choice.

    Much libertarian writing about unintended consequences completely ignores public choice. Unintended consequences are presumably unwanted and thus harmful, like side effects in medicine or computer programming. Where the consequence completely opposes the intent, like in the case of price control, we are clearly doing harm, and we see this often in public policy. No public choice needed and yes, libertarians remain obsessed with unintended consequences, rightfully so.

    Public choice does not compete with or explain the harm of unintended consequences, which assume good intent. Public choice attacks that assumption and is thus complementary to the existing critique and serves as a multiplier to the amount of caution we should take with public policy.

  10. Matthew Young says:

    Karma prevails in that the consumer gets stuck paying the burden of government, and mostly does the voting. The goal is to more closely connect the vote and cost of vote.

  11. Dan Culley says:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to lump a whole field of study into the same bucket. Certainly public choice theory does a good job of explaining why we should expect certain types of interest groups to mobilize (e.g., CEOs in concentrated industries) but others fail to do so (e g., consumers). And it should not be surprising that politicians, even good natured ones, pay attention to the squeaky wheel.

    It’s also not clear to me that the assumption that politicians act to maximize their chances of reelection is a bad assumption. At least for legislatures, where there is less variance due to idiosyncratic individuals bucking this trend.

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