The mention of public choice theory to those on ‘the left’ of politics can prompt a variety of reactions. Some are based on ignorance about the very existence of public choice economics as a theoretical perspective. This reaction was demonstrated to me following one of the first lectures I gave in my academic career. Having listened to me speak for an hour on the power of incumbent firms to ‘capture’ regulatory agencies an attending student who was an activist in the Socialist Workers Party asked me, ‘when did you become a Marxist?’ Needless to say, for someone who considers himself a radical ‘anti-Marxist’ I was taken aback by this approach! What the question exemplifies though is an attitude that is widespread in academic circles – the assumption that an interest in power imbalances that favour business interests must equate with one having leftist or socialist sympathies. The idea that there might be a classical liberal/free market understanding of ‘power relations’ as exemplified by public choice theory is a possibility that simply hasn’t occurred to this particular species of left-winger.
A second reaction is based on ‘avoidance’. This strategy is adopted by those who are aware of public choice arguments but see them as a direct threat to their most cherished ideas. So why is public choice theory such a threat? I think in part because it offers a more plausible account of ‘power relations’ than its neo-Marxist competitors. Public choice rejects the naive pluralist view that power is evenly distributed across interest groups by offering a non-Marxist account of elite power. Instead of assuming that large ‘classes’ such as ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ are the primary power players on the political stage public choice focuses on how individual incentives affect the capacity of different groups to organise and hence to wield power over others. Yes, business interests can be powerful – but not because they are businesses or because we live in a ‘capitalist’ society. Instead, they exercise power because in some sectors where there are a relatively small number of big players business interests may find it easier to overcome collective action/free-rider problems than other groups such as taxpayers and consumers-who find it much harder to form a cohesive political force. In more fragmented and diverse sectors by contrast ‘business interests’ often lack political clout – and may be less favoured than say labour unions or public bureaucrats with a monopolistic position in the state sector. From a public choice perspective there is no such thing as ‘business’ and ‘labour’ per se. Rather, there are different types of business and labour interest the political success of which depends on the specific incentives and organisational problems facing the actors concerned. As such, public choice offers a more empirically compelling account of the varied special interest outcomes we observe in democratic polities than simplistic theories of ‘class rule’.
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Dr Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy.