Matt Yglesias Should ‘Get’ Public Choice

Matt Yglesias says he doesn’t ‘get’ public choice and thinks he “never will.” He writes:

The observation that malgovernment is a major source of human ills is quite correct, but embracing fatalism about it only exacerbates the problem. What’s needed are efforts to push societies in the direction of taking honor and civic obligation more seriously, not less so. You want politicians and civil servants to feel worse, not better about behaving cynically.

Unlike Matt, I think he is sufficiently open-minded to update his prior beliefs, so here is my attempt to help him ‘get’ it. In my view, public choice does not exhort politicians to feel better about behaving badly. It just exhorts us to expect them to behave badly in certain circumstances and to plan accordingly (often by changing their incentives). In this regard it really isn’t all that different from normal economics (a point raised by one of Matt’s commenters, my friend Michael Makowsky).

Consider a problem from normal economics: the tragedy of the commons. Armed with empirical and theoretical reasons to expect that fishermen will over-fish a common pool, we should plan accordingly. We should examine the incentives of fishermen and think of ways to improve or alter these incentives (e.g., assign property rights over the pool, or impose a Pigouvian tax). To my knowledge, few if any economists would council that we ought to spend our time begging fisherman to pretty please stop overfishing. That is likely to be a fool’s errand.

The idea is much the same with public choice. Armed with empirical and theoretical reasons to think that politicians might do bad things, we should plan accordingly by placing some things—such as the establishment of religion—beyond the reach of politicians. I suppose we could ask Congress to pretty please not establish a religion but in my view it is better to make it illegal for them to do so.

James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and the other founders of Public Choice and its close-cousin Constitutional Political Economy didn’t stop their analysis after they found that politicians sometimes behave badly. Like James Madison before them, they thought of constructive ways to make political actors behave better, sometimes by placing certain decisions beyond their reach.

There is nothing fatalistic about that.