Friday, June 16, 2017

Does Public Choice Describe Political Reality?

by Levi Russell

Ben Southwood, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, recently wrote a piece for Jacobite Magazine in which he argues against the applicability of public choice theory to politics in Western democracies. Below I quote Southwood at length and explain in detail where I think his analysis goes wrong. The overarching theme is this: Southwood seems to think (erroneously) that public choice is about ill intent or corruption on the part of politcians. In fact, it is merely about the application of rational, individual choice frameworks of economics to the study of politics. Politicians may have the best of intentions, but the limitations of collective action and opportunities to maximize their own benefit (as we all try to do, even if that sometimes entails benefiting others we care about or with whose interests ours align) in the political sphere lead them to act in ways that are inconsistent with an idealized view of politics.

In his description of public choice, Southwood starts off well, but understates the predictive power of public choice theory.
Public choice is true on the margin—that is: people’s actions in politics and government tend to be affected by self-interest—but if you predicted what people did using only or mainly public choice you’d get it wrong nearly every time, at least in the modern West.
In fact, public choice theory can predict the actions taken by politicians, bureaucrats, and voters well, if not perfectly. Politicians may have altruistic motives, but they cannot effectuate their agendas without acting in ways described by public choice theory. Southwood's first example is voting:
Start with voting. Voting is an extremely widespread behavior in Western societies. A third or two fifths of adults will turn out even for the most trivial local elections. Eighty per cent might turn out for a major contest. But public choice cannot explain this.

Your vote has a tiny influence on the outcome of most elections. The chance of an individual voter deciding an American presidential election is about one in sixty million (ranging from one in ten million in some swing states to about one in a billion in Texas or California). If you only care about the election’s impact on your own personal prospects, then the election would need to be worth about a billion dollars to you personally. Elections often make trillions of dollars worth of difference overall, but rarely more than thousands or hundreds to individuals or their families.
This is a complete misunderstanding of public choice theory on voting. The cost-benefit analysis of voting for an individual is straightforward if we account for the social dimesion. People turn out to vote because they and their peer group believe it is part of their civic duty. The cost of voting is small relative to the benefit of signaling to one's peer group that we care about our civic duty. The fact that an individual vote is highly unlikely to affect an election simply doesn't matter.

Southwood goes on:
In public choice theory politicians stand for elected office not in order to enact a program, based on their views and convictions, but in order to maximize their personal power. To do so, they maximize votes at elections. This claim is also a familiar conventional wisdom to the point of cliche: politicians are unprincipled schemers who will do anything for votes.
There's a lot to unpack here. The first sentence gives the impression that politicians' desire to enact a program "based on their views and convictions" precludes their intent to maximize personal power. On the contrary, the former is dependent on the latter! Immediately after their elections, presidents and prime ministers are often said to have a "strong mandate" if they win more votes than expected. This "mandate" is said to give them political leverage to implement their agendas. All of this is orthogonal to their status as "unprincipled schemers who will do anything for votes." They may be unprincipled schemers, or they may be very well-meaning people. The fact is, if they want to implement the policies they think best, they have to work the system. The idea that politicians are evil might be a popular shorthand for public choice theory, but it doesn't represent the theory itself.

Southwood continues:
Public choice also predicts that officials are easily lobbied: they can be bought by rent-seeking special interests. But the literature is almost unequivocal: the source of campaign funds makes little difference to campaigns or policies. The fact that the decisions politicians make affect how trillions of dollars are spent, and yet firms spend figures in the low billions on elections caused a famous economics paper to ask “Why is there so little money in US politics“?
Again, Southwood starts off fine. Campaign donations, lobbying, and the revolving door more generally are all ways certain interest groups can influence politicians. The literature, specifically the paper he cites, does find that campaign donations only influence legislators' votes in some cases. However, this doesn't include lobbying and other rent seeking behavior. There is a revealed preference component here; even if interest groups are not "buying votes" with campaign funds or lobbying firm fees, they apparently see some value in spending several billion dollars per year (at the federal level) on it. We can't observe a counterfactual world in which there is no "money in politics," so it's difficult to know precisely how much impact campaign funds and lobbying have on legislator's behavior. Finally, there is a point to be made here about marginalism. It's true the US federal budget is in the trillions. However, the votes held in any single legislature will only affect this budget at the margins, not halving or doubling the budget year to year.

Public choice is fundamentally not about corruption or other criminal behavior; it's simply economics applied to political problems. Oftentimes, it's about incentive and information problems specific to the political world that result from the constraints we face in human interaction. Regulation can indirectly benefit special interests incentivizing rent seeking behavior, some laws can give politicians the power to benefit themselves personally, and arbitrary enforcement can create confusion and uncertainty. Even popular and well-meaning politicians understand the poor incentives they sometimes face.

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