Quotulatiousness

January 11, 2013

Public choice theory is neither Left nor Right

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In his obituary for the late James Buchanan, Radley Balko debunks the meme that public choice theory — of which Buchanan was one of the founding fathers — is by nature anti-left:

The discrepancy struck me at the time, and has stuck with me ever since. Buchanan’s work is often seen on the right as a critique of the left’s faith in public service. He showed that like everyone else, public servants tend to serve their own interests, not necessarily the interests of the greater public good. When a new federal agency is created to address some social ill, for example, there’s a strong incentive for the employees of that agency to never completely solve the problem they’ve been hired to solve. To do so would mean there would no longer be a need for their agency. It would mean layoffs, smaller budgets, even elimination entirely. In fact, there’s a strong incentive to exaggerate the problem, if not even exacerbate it. The agency itself is never going to get blamed for the problem. So exaggerating it helps the agency argue for more staff and a larger budget. (Thus, Milton Friedman’s axiom, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”)

It doesn’t even need to be a deliberate thing. When your livelihood, your self-worth, and your career depend on things looking a certain way, there’s always going to be a strong incentive for you to see them that way.

Conservatives have always bought into public choice theory when it comes to paper-pushing bureaucrats. But when it come to law enforcement, they often have the same sort of blind faith in the good intentions and public-mindedness of public servants that the left has for, say, EPA bureaucrats. But public choice problems are as prevalent in law enforcement as they are in any other field of government work. And you could make a strong argument that it’s more important that we recognize and compensate for the incentive problems among cops and prosecutors because the consequences of bad decisions can be quite a bit more dire.

If we reward prosecutors who rack up convictions with reelection, higher office, and high-paying jobs at white-shoe law firms, and at the same time provide no real sanction or punishment when they break the rules in pursuit of those convictions, we shouldn’t be surprised if we start to see a significant number of wrongful convictions. If we reward cops who rack up impressive raw arrest numbers with promotions and pay raises, and at the same time don’t punish or sanction cops who violate the civil and constitutional rights of the people who live in the communities they serve, we shouldn’t be surprised if we start to see a significant number of cops more interested in detaining and arresting people than in protecting the rights of the citizens they encounter on their patrols. We can certainly hope that a sense of civic virtue and veneration for justice will override those misplace incentives, but it would be foolish — and has been foolish — for us to rely on that. Incentives do matter.

Any time I link to an article, it’s assumed that I suggest you read the whole thing. In this case, it’s a very strong recommendation that you read the whole thing.

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