The Trouble with Public Choice: Too Generous to Politicians

Matt Yglesias recently admitted in a blog post to increasing bafflement about “the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics.” Today Matt says some libertarians “responded to that post by deciding they should be condescending and give me a little less in Public Choice Economics 101. That, however, misunderstands what I’m trying to say about the subject.” Which is what?

The formal model of the self-interested legislator is very easy to understand. What I’m saying is hard to understand is the actual psychology of this kind of behavior. I think I now have a much better grasp than I once did of what’s going on inside the heads of people who have ideological beliefs I disagree with. But I find it very difficult to extend my powers of moral imagination to the kind of people who hold high political office in the United States.

I'm with Matt. I too find it hard to get inside the heads of politicians, and I don't find rational choice assumptions very illuminating in this regard. By insisting that politicians are motivated by considerations no different than businessmen or anybody else, public choice economists have helped slay the pernicious myth that politicians are generally warmly other-regarding public servants. But the economist's assumption of motivational uniformity fails to capture that politicians do in fact seem to be really odd people who don't seem to be primarily motivated by the same considerations that motivate most of us most of the time. The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they're like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.

I find I almost always side with those defending empirically-informed motivational realism against a priorist rational choice/public choice types. (The dispute here between classic public choicers Mike Munger and Anthony de Jasay against empirically-informed political philosopher Jerry Gaus is illustrative. Jerry's right, I think.) So I agree with Matt that politicians are probably odd, and in a bad way. But then I wonder what Matt takes the general lesson of that to be. Maybe if I thought about it longer, I could imagine a story in which this doesn't tend to imply skepticism about the efficiency and justice of a system in which politicians are given a great deal of discretion to shape individual and public life, but I can't think of one right now. So I'm curious what Matt takes to be the broader implications of the idea that “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power.”