Consent Calculation by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tulock is one of the great books of the public choice tradition, a scholarly tradition of economics and political science that uses the tools of economics – rational choice, methodological individualism, and the notion of politics as exchange – to understand political decisions. Public Choice has been criticized as cynical and depressing because it (allegedly) does not view people as more than pleasure and pain hedonic flash calculators who would run over their own mothers to pick up a penny from the sidewalk. Like many economic theories, it has been criticized for being ‘reductionist’ and for having a narrow and ‘atomistic’ view of the detached individual. People have argued that it’s wrong because he advises people to act that way (spoiler alert: it’s not). He was called immoral because he refuses to look at people through ambitious lenses. But again, what should we expect from this James M. Buchanan–one of the founders of Public Choice and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Public Choice Ideas — calls “politics without romance”?
Observers should not short sell public choice theory or public choice economists. There is more to the tradition of public choice – and economics more broadly – than getting and spending. Buchanan was keenly interested in ethical ideas during his career, which should come as no surprise considering his mentor Frank Knight Publication Folder. He includes a section on “Pigovian economics and Christian ethics” in his underrated book Cost and choice. There are four entries in the index for Consent Calculation for ‘ethics’ and one for ‘morals’.
Four of these references direct readers to Chapter 16, “Democratic Ethics and economic efficiency” (emphasis added), and another directs readers to a section entitled “The Ethics of Lobby Activity” at the end of Chapter 19. Buchanan and Tullock argue that their research program is optimistic rather than pessimistic because they “view collective decision-making (collective action) as a form of human activity through which mutual gains are made possible. They continue: “Thus, in our conception, collective activity, like commercial activity, is a real cooperative effort in which all the parties, conceptually, have everything to gain. They contrast this with “much orthodox political thought” which “seems to be based on the idea that the process of collective choice reflects a partisan struggle in which the beneficiaries achieve gains only at the expense of the losers”. Following economist Dennis Robertson, they argue that if their analysis is correct, “less reliance should be placed on the moral constraints of individuals”. In other words, we can achieve better political results with people as we really know them without waiting for a big leap forward or a new socialist man.
They recognize that people have standards: some people might think work is okay, but prostitution is “grossly immoral.” With regard to economists, “(an) economist may consider it morally acceptable to sell his educational services to a university, but morally unacceptable to sell his professional services to a political party”. A little imagination brings many other examples. We generally agree that it is okay to buy houses and apartment complexes and rent them to strangers, but that it is is not OK to present his child with a bill for food, clothing and accommodation. Taboo foods and forbidden words appear in almost every culture. Just because people are methodological individualists doesn’t mean they can’t be vegan. They go on to discuss vote trading, which they say is almost universally doomed when it comes to money. A student at the University of Minnesota, for example, was accused of offering to sell his vote in the 2008 election on eBay. Things are different when no money changes hands, but when people take advantage of “(the) opportunity to trade votes on separate issues through logrolling”, which, as they point out, can have certain advantages insofar as it can block discriminatory legislation.
They then analyze the arguments for and against vote trading in different scenarios and argue that pressure group activity (later called rent seeking) and argue that it is “an inherent and predictable part of the modern democratic process” that “is a predictable result of [their] fundamental behavioral assumptions. At first it seems depressing. However, the public choice approach gives us reason for hope because it shifts the focus from moral reform to institutional or “structural” reform. There are a lot of flaws in ourselves, but at least when it comes to public choices, they can be largely mitigated by fixing the flaws in our incentives.
Art Carden is a Trust Fellow Professor of Economics and Medical Properties at Samford University, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: He has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does much work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to organize events on campus.