Public Choice, 1; Public Interest, 0

July 26, 2005

Economists assume people are mostly motivated by self-interest. The theory of public choice just extends that analysis to government, taking the same principles economists use to analyze people’s decisions in markets and applying them to political actors.

Not surprisingly, the key result is that politicians mostly work to maximize net benefits to themselves, not benefits to the public at large—what Nobel Laureate James Buchanan has called “politics without romance.”

One more confirmation of the soundness of the public choice approach comes from the excellent cover story of the July 2005 Harper’s magazine, “The Great American Pork Barrel” by Ken Silverstein:

“Pork-barreling” as a legislative epithet is a pre-Civil War coinage that referred to the custom of handing out salt pork to slaves, who would crowd around the barrels that held it; and indeed, members of Congress have raided the federal treasury for home-district boondoggles ever since the earliest days of the republic…

The pork barrel was to become as central to our national political culture as the gerrymander or the filibuster; it has long been a foregone conclusion that whenever the federal government builds a road, or erects a dam, or constructs a power plant, members of Congress will artfully pad the bill with hometown “pork.”

In the past two decades, though, the pastime has become breathtaking in its profligacy. Even as the federal deficit soars to record heights, the sums of money being diverted from the treasury have grown ever larger. Last year, 15,584 separate earmarks worth a combined $32.7 billion were attached to appropriations bills—more than twice the dollar amount in 2001, when 7,803 earmarks accounted for $15 billion; and more than three times the amount in 1998, when roughly 2,000 earmarks totaled $10.6 billion…

Although there are a number of legislative instruments that moneyed interests can use to raid the federal treasury, appropriations bills have become the vehicle of choice, both because they are regularly scheduled—they must be passed, or else the government shuts down—and because their staggering size and scope deter public scrutiny of individual line items. Unsurprisingly, seats on the appropriations committees are among the most desirable sinecures in Congress.

It’s hard to imagine a more absolute and total confirmation of the methodological soundness of the public choice approach to public spending and taxation.

Unfortunately, the full piece isn’t available online. For a useful summary from the Washington Post, see here.


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