Against Public Choice, For Public Virtue

Tyler Cowen says public choice economics is the most underrated line of thought in today’s profession.

While of course I agree with many of the specific observations made under the banner of public choice (public officials often do corrupt and self-interested things), I don’t really “get” public choice and think I never will. The basic theory (here’s a good recent example from Jerry Brito) seems to go like this:

1) Spread cynicism about public officials.
2) …
3) Libertarianism!

The psychological and sociological links here seem clear enough. Both libertarian political ideology and spreading cynicism about public officials serve to raise the status of businessmen and lower the status of politicians and bureaucrats. But as a political agenda it doesn’t work at all.

For starters, even in the nightwatchman state we still have the nightwatchmen. We’re keeping the armed men, the dungeons, the handcuffs, the tanks, and the nuclear missiles. These — rather than, say, the librarians — are the really dangerous part of big government. If you look at a really poorly governed place (Congo, say) the problem isn’t that the people in charge of regulating air pollution aren’t doing their jobs correctly. The problem is either that the men with the guns and dungeons are corrupt, or else that they’re incapable of protecting citizens from other predatory gangs of men with guns, or some combination of the two. When I was in Russia, I was robbed by policemen on several occasions under the pretense of fining me for having my visa out of order, and upon leaving the airport security guards stole all my cash. In the United States, neither of those things has ever happened to me. The existence of the rule of law and secure property rights is, where it exists, a triumph of public integrity against the assumption of cynicism.

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. You want voters to broaden the interests they consider, not narrow them. In the early 19th century, “let’s kill Indians to steal their natural resources” was a winning campaign platform. In the 21st century, “let’s kill Canadians to steal their natural resources” is not. That makes all the difference. Suggesting that instances of public corruption and self-dealing simply show that corruption and self-dealing are inevitable just eats away at the moral and social fabric that underlies any kind of prosperity.

Last week I was outside my office and I saw a $5 bill on the ground. Famously, economists say you never see a $5 bill on the ground because someone would pick it up. But instead of picking it up, I stood around watching to see if anyone else would. A bunch of people walked by not noticing it. Then one guy saw it, saw me, and asked if it was mine. I said no it wasn’t, I was just curious what would happen. He laughed and made a joke about economists. Then a second guy came by, picked it up, and said I’d dropped five dollars. I said no, actually it was there before me. He looked around, noticed a homeless guy across the street, said “I think he needs it more than me,” walked over and gave it to him.