Public Choice Economics

To understand the indifference of Burma\’s military rulers to the suffering of cyclone Nargis survivors, look no further than the large gold lettering on the gates of the army\’s officer training school.

It proclaims the young officers to be \’the Triumphant Elite of the Future\’, which sums up the attitude of the men who have run Burma for 46 years and regard themselves as above the people, with the perpetual right to tell them what to do. It\’s much the same in Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe\’s recent campaign slogan was \’Get behind the fist\’ with a picture of his, firmly clenched.

Mugabe\’s message – that his opponents are traitors to the liberation movement and not true Zimbabweans – was clear and those not behind the fist are liable to be crushed by it. In winning the war against white domination, he regards his Zanu-PF party as also having won the right to rule indefinitely.

The two regimes have much in common besides decades in power and a deep-seated paranoia. The crisis in Burma lays bare how both regard their own survival, and enrichment, as paramount, no matter how many of their citizens die along the way. It\’s a common trait in authoritarian regimes. The Burmese army doesn\’t really think it is better able to deliver aid than the World Food Programme. But the regime is fearful of allowing in hordes of foreigners from countries it blames for Burma\’s problems because that would be an admission of its own failings and limitations.

Well, yes, all true.

But the great insight of public choice economics is that all governments are like this: it\’s only a matter of degree. Do we think that every member of the House of Commons is there for the selfless struggle to better the lives of their constituents? That every Ministerial decision is made solely with the benefits to the population in mind? That there are no MPs, no Miinisters, there for the pleasures and aggrandisement it gives them, and them alone?

Quite, they\’re all at it. It\’s a matter of degree.

And that\’s what those boring things like civil liberties, laws about what they may not do to us, are all about. Limiting their ability to do as they wish for themselves at our expense. Without them, no, of course Britain would not turn into Burma overnight….but the path would be open and in time, it would happen.

8 thoughts on “Public Choice Economics”

  1. Tim, you sum things up so eloquently and succintly.

    Just wondering, do you have a recommendation for a book that explores the sorts of issues that you explore on your blog? I’ve read Adam Smith et al but was wondering about something that looks more at the modern world…

    Tim adds: Academically on this subject there’s loads from James Buchanan (Nobel for public choice economics). Gordon Tullock’s another.
    For lighter stuff, two by PJ O’Rourke: “Eat the Rich” and “Parliament of Whores.” Those two are worth reading anyway. For something in between, Deepak Lal is scathing about governments (“Reviving the Invisible Hand”) and gives a very good description of his very bleak view of what governments are (roughly what I use above). Tim Harford’s first books, “Undercover Economist” has as its chapter on a West African country (sorry, can’t remember which: Cameroon?) a discussion of the same points.

  2. “…that’s what those boring things like civil liberties, laws about what they may not do to us, are all about. Limiting their ability…”

    Laws are important, yes, but ultimately they’re only words written on a piece of paper. I think what’s more important are competing centres of power; jealous rivals do a wonderful job of policing, alternative powers can, through competition, mutually improve one another, and different centres can, through example, offer powerful criticism.

    For reading I would add to Tim’s list anything (or everything) by Mancur Olson.

  3. Thanks guys. I have a book by Sowell on my Amazon list for my next shipment actually (the $A is very useful at the moment).

  4. I thought that the description of new aristocracies setting themselves up was rather reminiscent of New Labour.

  5. Presumably Tim, this public choice theory business will apply to you if you ever become a UKIP MP/whatever.

    So why should we vote for you since you’ve proved quite convincingly that as soon as you get there you will be sticking your big fat nose in the trough?

    Tim adds: Unfortunately, there’s no actual logically valid rebuttal of that allegation. Other than Alfred E Nuemann’s “What, Me?”

  6. While condemning the Burmese government for not letting others help their ravaged people, the same U.S. and British officials will do nothing to let power companies protect us from obscenely high utility bills by letting them build more nuclear reactors.

  7. Tim,

    “Unfortunately, there’s no actual logically valid rebuttal of that allegation. ”

    That is indeed the only correct answer to that question: in order to limit the amount of self-aggrandisement, the first thing is to recognise that it is there and something that requires constant struggle on the part of the individual to minimise.

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