Public Choice Theory

… a core concept in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

James Buchanan, 1923-2013

James Buchanan, 1919-2013

Concept description

William Shughart, in The Concise Encylopedia of Economics (reference below), describes public choice theory as the application of the theories and methods of economics to the analysis of political behavior, an area that was once the exclusive province of political scientists and sociologists.

Shughart writes:

“Public choice originated as a distinctive field of specialization a half century ago in the works of its founding fathers, Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Anthony Downs, William Niskanen, Mancur Olson, and William Riker. Public choice has revolutionized the study of democratic decision-making processes.

“As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. In the conventional “public interest” view, public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” In tending to the public’s business, voters, politicians, and policymakers are supposed somehow to rise above their own parochial concerns.

“In modeling the behavior of individuals as driven by the goal of utility maximization – economics jargon for a personal sense of well-being – economists do not deny that people care about their families, friends, and community. But public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and, more important, that the motivations of people in the political process are no different from those of people in the steak, housing, or car market. They are the same human beings, after all. As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Implementation and Delivery (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107


William F. Shughart II, Public Choice, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, at, accessed 2 May 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 19 January 2017.

Image: The Economist, The voice of public choice, at, accessed 22 November 2016.