In his weekly column for USA Today, Glenn Reynolds distills down the essence of public choice theory:
The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft.
That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support and even in opportunities for politicians to feel superior or to humiliate their enemies. What all these things have in common, though, is that they’re not about making life better for voters. They’re about making life better for politicians.
This doesn’t sound much like the traditional view of politics, as embodied in, say, the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just A Bill” video. But it’s a view of politics that explains an awful lot.
And there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest.
Public choice economists say that groups don’t make decisions, individuals do. And individuals mostly do what they think will be best for them, not for the “public.” Public choices, thus, are like private choices. You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve.
How do they get away with this? First, most voters are “rationally ignorant.” That is, they realize that their vote isn’t likely to make much of a difference, so it’s not rational to learn all the ins and outs of policy or of what political leaders are doing. Second, the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them, that ordinary voters don’t.
Can we eliminate this problem? Nope. But we can make it worse, or better. The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite. Meanwhile, if we do the opposite — give the government less power and demand more accountability — politicians can get away with less. But they’ll always get away with as much as they can.