Advanced Topics in Liberty

Public Choice and Government Failure

Conference for Professionals - December 2-4, 2011

Discussion Leader: Professor Loren Lomasky, University of Virginia

Public choice is the intersection of two disciplines: the institutions are those of political science, and the method is that of economic theory. Public choice scholars have developed powerful critiques about the shortcomings of democratic decision-making, the dangers of government regulation, and the pathologies of bureaucracies.

Perhaps no other academic revolution in the last fifty years has done more to promote the cause of liberty than the development of the Public Choice School of Economics. Led by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, this academic movement has done much of the intellectual legwork in recent years for friends of liberty who are concerned about the explosive growth of government during the twentieth century.

Though the work of public choice economists has been recognized as an important contribution to our understanding of how institutions in a free society work, they receive surprisingly little mention in graduate courses in political science, political philosophy, history, or even economics. Some fifty years after the publication of Calculus of Consent, the term “public choice” is still largely unknown to most people outside of academia. Part of the reason for this may be the economic language and mathematical models that dominate much of the research among public choice scholars. The goal of this conference would be to examine the evolution and main arguments of the public choice school. The readings will focus on why government does not work nearly as well as its supporters argue, why it continues to grow, and how we can think more critically about what specific roles government and markets should play in society.

Discussion Leader: Loren Lomasky, Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia

Session I - What Is the Public Choice Approach?

Buchanan, James M. The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Volume 1: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1999. Chapter 2, “Politics Without Romance” (pages 45–59).

Wittman, Donald. The Myth of Democratic Failure: Why Political Institutions Are Efficient. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Chapter 10, “The Constitution as an Optimal Social Contract and the Role of Transaction Costs in Constitutional Design” (pages 122–151).

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Chapter 15, “The things for which men, and especially princes, are praised and Blamed” (pages 49–50), Chapter 16, “Generosity and Parsimony” (pages 51–53), and Chapter 17, “Cruelty and Compassion; and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the Reverse” (pages 53–56).

Session II - Constitutions as Contracts for Liberty

Hayek, F. A. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960, 1978. Chapter 9, “Coercion and the State” (pages 133–147).

Buchanan, James and Gordon Tullock. The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Volume 3: The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1999. Chapter 6, “A Generalized Economic Theory of Constitutions” (pages 63–84).

Session III - Factions, Interest Groups, and Self-Interest

Carey, George W. and James McClellan, eds. The Federalist. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2001. “Federalist No. 10” (pages 42–49).

Tullock, Gordon, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady. Government Failure: A Primer on Public Choice. Washington: Cato Institute, 2002. Chapter 3, “Logrolling” (pages 29–41) and Chapter 4, “The Cost of Rent Seeking” (pages 43–51).

Session IV - Redistributive Politics and Regulation

Stigler, George J. “The Theory of Economic Regulation.” The Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science 2, no. 1 (Spring 1971): 3–21.

Wagner, Richard E. To Promote the General Welfare –– Market Processes vs. Political Transfers. San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1989. Chapter 5, “Public Spending and Income Redistribution” (pages 89–106).

Session V - Elections and the Problems with Determining What “The People” Want

Caplan, Bryan. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Chapter 4, “Classical Public Choice and the Failure of Rational Ignorance” (pages 94–113).

Session VI - Constitutional Reform as a Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Buchanan, James and Richard Musgrave. Public Finance and Public Choice: Two Contrasting Views of the state. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999, 2000, 2001. Chapter 3.1, “Constraints on Political Action” (pages 107–128), Chapter 3.2, “Response” (pages 129–137), and Chapter 3.3, “Discussion” (pages 139–152).

Grossman, Herschel I. “The state: Agent or proprietor?” Economics of Governance 1 (2000): 3–11. (Reader)