The Debate Over Public Choice Misdefines “Self Interest” and “Public Interest”

Gordon TullockAre political actors (politicians, voters, and bureaucrats) motivated by “self interest” or “public interest?” That is the central question as it is posed in the academic debate over the Public Choice school of economics. However, it is the wrong question.

Public Choice economists and their critics agree that, at least sometimes, political actors pursue financial gain and power at the expense of others, and obviously that is true. To take a few examples, recall the Youtube video in which a woman recites her reasons for supporting Barack Obama: “I won’t have to work [to] put gas in my car, I won’t have to work [to] pay my mortgage.” Does anyone doubt that political actions over the last few years to expand food stamps, expand unemployment benefits, increase subsidies for students loans, bail out auto unions, subsidize solar and wind companies, and expand Medicare coverage were calculated to gain political support? The typical member of congress today sees it as his primary responsibility to bring home the pork to (select voters within) his district.

The problem lies in describing the issue as “self interest” versus “public interest.” Before addressing that issue, though, let us first look in more detail at the debate surrounding Public Choice.

In his book Government Failure, Gordon Tullock (one of the founders of Public Choice) describes what he sees as the problem with the traditional view of politics, as well as his alternative:

Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, economists assumed that individuals are primarily concerned with their own interest and worked out the consequences of that assumption. In contrast, during this same period political science largely assumed that political actors are mainly concerned with the public interest. . . .

Economists changed this bifurcated view of human behavior by developing the theory of public choice, which amounts, in essence, to transplanting the general analytical framework of economics into political science. The statement that the voter in the voting booth is the same person as the customer in the supermarket does not seem radical, but it is nevertheless a very dramatic change from the political science literature. (pp. 4–5)

While Tullock grants that political actors do not necessarily act in a “self interested” way (as he uses the term), he thinks they ordinarily do:

Of course, empirical confirmation of any theoretical proposition is more important than analytical elegance. When considering the behavior of any individual politician, most people realize that the politician behaves in a self-interested way; similarly, when considering the factors that affect votes, most people assume that personal gain is certainly an aspect. (p. 6)

The critics of Public Choice, on the other hand, argue that political actors tend to act in the “public interest.” Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, describes the debate in the Winter-Spring 1995 issue (Vol. 9, Nos. 1–2) of his journal:

[A] distinction should be drawn between two terms that are often used imprecisely or synonymously: rational choice and public choice. One understanding of the difference holds that public choice theory applies economic analysis to political (i.e., “public”) decision making, while rational choice theory goes even farther, applying economics to other nonmarket realms, such as family life. This distinction, to adopt John Ferejohn’s [citation omitted] terminology, attributes to both public and rational choice theory a “thin” understanding of the economists’ rationality postulate: individuals are assumed to have only the inclination to satisfy their stable and ordered preferences, whether these are selfish or not. But outside the academy, public choice theory has a decidedly “thick” connotation, referring to the alleged propensity of political actors to pursue their material self-interest. . . .

Like most important ideas . . . public choice theory is liable to polemical oversimplification. The main danger is that the possibility that people are as self-interested in their political as their economic behavior may be treated as the assumption that self-interest is always and everywhere the real fountainhead of politics. . . .

[T]he effort of comparing public choice hypotheses against alternatives frequently falls to non-public choice scholars. One such effort is Leif Lewin’s Self-Interest and Public Interest in Western Democracies, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. Reviewing in detail the empirical literature on a variety of public choice claims—almost all of which was written by non-public choice researchers—Lewin found that in no case does public choice theory withstand scrutiny as a general hypothesis about the ubiquity of self-interest in politics. (pp. 1–3)

Friedman goes on to explain that, according to Lewin’s findings, voters tend to select politicians they deem “likeliest to benefit the economy of their society as a whole,” and bureaucrats too frequently act outside the boundaries of what the Public Choicers predict for them (pp. 3–4).

Notably, a recent issue of Critical Review (Vol. 23, No. 3 from 2011) explores Lewin’s work in more detail, featuring an essay by Lewin himself.

Lewin writes that, today, even many Public Choicers agree “that voters, politicians, and bureaucrats are much more public spirited than public-choice theorists originally maintained” (p. 361). However, Lewin acknowledges the problem of interest groups in politics. He writes, “[I]t is hardly unexpected that people pursue their self-interest when they enroll in interest groups. That is the whole rationale for membership.”

Public Choice economists and their critics, then, agree that sometimes political actors act in their “self interest” and sometimes in the “public interest.” They disagree over how prevalent one is over the other.

The huge problem with this debate is that neither of the sides presented offers a coherent definition of “self interest” or “public interest.”

As the scholars quoted above use the term, “self interest” applies to political practices of taking others’ wealth by force, forcibly blocking or harming competitors, gaining special political favors, and the like. The opposite of “self interest,” goes this line of thinking, is “public interest,” which means acting for the general well-being of society as a whole. Neither of those definitions withstands scrutiny.

Begin with “self interest.” One’s actual, long-term, selfish interests consist substantially in achieving and supporting a government that protects individual rights, not one that forcibly transfers wealth and doles out favors. It is only within a rights-respecting society that an individual is free to act consistently for his own purposes and in accordance with his own, unhindered judgment. If one holds that the “public interest” consists in establishing a rights-protecting government—the only sensible use of the term—then there is no clash between pursuing the “public interest” and pursuing one’s “self interest,” properly conceived.

With the sloppy treatment of “public interest” within the debate over Public Choice theory, however, the “public interest” can be conceived in any number of contradictory ways, ranging from the American Founders’ support for a rights-respecting government to the communists’ support for collectivism and mass slavery. What matters is the content of one’s ideology, and referring to some undefined “public interest” only obfuscates that issue.

History shows that what we have to fear are not primarily the petty politicians who act to advance their narrow interests of wealth and power by abusing their positions, as annoying and destructive as they are. What we should fear are those politicians who sincerely act in the “public interest” conceived apart from individual rights—and who stop at nothing to achieve it.

Image of Gordon Tulluck: Mercatus Center

Ayn Rand’s Novels Continue to Change Lives

Last night at Denver Liberty On the Rocks, Stephen Bailey and Anders Ingemarson delivered talks on two of Ayn Rand’s novels, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged.

These talks were part of a series I agreed to help organize in connection with a Fall fundraiser for the Ayn Rand Institute’s books for teachers program. Here I embed not only last night’s talks, but previous talks by Hannah Krening and Kirk Barbera on Rand’s other two novels.

What Is Individualism?

Many people hold a confused view of what individualism means. In this short talk, I seek to clarify the concept. Individualism does not mean becoming a loner or failing to help others; it does mean thinking independently and seeing the individual human being as the fundamental source of moral values. Obviously there is much more to be said on the topic, but I this was a good start for four minutes. (The original September 24 talk, delivered at a Toastmasters event, also included an introduction and ending, but those were too audience-specific to be of general interest.)

I mention the CNN debate in which Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if “society” should let someone die who gets sick without health insurance; I have written on that topic elsewhere.

Let’s Smear Ayn Rand!

With the release of the mediocre Atlas Shrugged film, smearing Ayn Rand has practically risen to a national pastime. No other literary figure I can think of has been subjected to such relentless and dishonest attacks. Usually, those who most viciously smear Rand display the least understanding of her ideas.

There are basically three reasons why Rand is the target of such nasty smear campaigns. First, because Rand was an atheist, she is hated and condemned by much of the right. The most notorious, and probably still the most blatantly dishonest, attack on Rand was published by National Review. Second, because Rand was an arch-capitalist, a defender of laissez-faire, and a harsh critic of the Soviet experiment, she is hated by most of the left. Third, the two early biographies about Rand were written by Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, hardly objective sources given their personal spat with Rand, and arguably vicious liars. Unfortunately, those two distorted biographies continue to set the tone for many of Rand’s detractors.

It is almost comical how people who otherwise have little in common nevertheless manage to create echo-chambers of anti-Rand smears. Consider the following line by Mark Moe from the Denver Post: “If this [alleged description of Rand’s ideas] sounds like 4th grade tantrumspeak, well, conservative columnist Michael Gerson agrees. Recently he called ‘Atlas’ a product of ‘adult onset adolescence.'”

Indeed, I find it baffling why an otherwise-respectable newspaper would publish a smear-job that so blatantly misrepresents Rand’s basic ideas that it almost reads as parody. Moe writes, “[T]hough Rand’s monomaniacal philosophy of Objectivism can be boiled down into a few simple axioms, her style is a study in verbose bloviation by characters who are little more than cartoonish megaphones for her stunted worldview.” Okay, then! Apparently enough smears strung together can substitute for an argument.

Or consider right-winger John Andrews’s bizarre claims about Rand:

Messianism is messianism: foolish at best, hypnotic at worst. The grandiosity of Barack Obama and the will to power of Saul Alinsky cry for relief. The country must be rid of them, and soon. But the antidote is not John Galt and Ayn Rand. The messianic similarities are too close. One political panacea can’t cure another.

The novel’s final scene tells how Galt “raised his hand and traced in space the sign of the dollar,” while nearby one of his disciples rewrote the Constitution. No sign of the cross for the atheist Rand; no great reverence for the Founders either. Her secular religion, Objectivism, would improve on both. Right.

Rand is similar to Obama in that both are “messianic?” That’s just silly. “No great reverence for the Founders?” That’s just willful ignorance; Rand consistently praised the Founders for creating the greatest nation on earth. (True, Rand offered some criticisms of the original Constitution, as did a great many of the Founders.)

Even Rand’s fair-weather friends often take cheap shots. For example, the following comment from Mike Rosen has absolutely no basis in reality: “There were many challenges in converting the book to a movie. At the top of the list was the task of satisfying the Ayn Rand Institute, the objectivist high priests who keep her flame burning and whose approval was a condition of the movie rights.” Rand’s estate, not the Institute, sold the movie rights long ago, without any such conditions. (That’s unfortunate; had the Institute had any significant say in the movie, it probably would have been a lot better.)

Obviously Rand made some mistakes in her life; which novelist hasn’t? She could have a fiery temper (hardly uncommon among creative types, though she could also be sweet as a kitten), and I don’t see how her affair with Branden can be regarded as anything other than a gigantic mistake. But some of Rand’s critics seem to think that, by recounting only Rand’s flaws while ignoring her many virtues, exaggerating those flaws, completely distorting her ideas, and stacking smear upon ugly smear, they can simply ignore what Rand had to say.

Fortunately, Rand’s audience has never been those who let other people’s smears substitute for their own thinking. So read Atlas Shrugged for yourself, and evaluate its literary merits, and its ideas, by your own reasoned judgment.

***

Neil Parille commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
Nathaniel Branden didn’t write a biography of Ayn Rand. He wrote two memoirs (actually one memoir which he revised). There is a little too much anger in the books.

Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was good. In fact, the 2009 biographies have more or less confirmed the Branden accounts. Jennifer Burns said she found no significant errors in the Branden books and she had almost complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives.

Thus I think your claim that the Brandens are “arguably vicious liars” is untrue, at least when it comes to their accounts. They both lied to Rand during the affair, although much worse in the case of Nathaniel.

Valliant’s book misrepresents the Brandens and other sources. I’ve discussed it in detail.

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
How is criticism of atheism any more degrading than your constant bashing of Christians?

Neither action helps the cause of freedom.

A proper implementation of government would allow both belief systems to operate simultaneously .

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 7:03 AM
Ari, please don’t confuse “smear” with “criticism.” And fer dog’s sake, stop reading Mike Rosen – a more superficial opinionator would be hard to find.

ReplyDelete

Ari commented May 11, 2011 at 9:28 AM
I never said criticizing Rand’s atheism counts as smearing! Rather, my point is that some who hate Rand’s atheism smear her because of it. Criticizing a view with which one reasonably disagrees is not “bashing,” it is making a reasoned argument. A proper government allows complete freedom of religion, and more broadly complete freedom of conscience, as consistent with the rights of others. (E.g., you can’t sacrifice somebody as part of your religion.)

bil_d commented May 11, 2011 at 11:43 AM
Ari,
Ayn Rand gets smeared predominantly because of other people’s religion, not as a direct result of her lack of it. A fine point, perhaps. Nevertheless, revealing..

It is due to the requirements of mystic belief systems (pick your flavor, it matters not) that when a follower of one runs into Ayn Rand they are put into a position of having to engage in all sorts of tortured defense mechanisms. And smearing her is almost involuntary.

Sad, but true.

Hsieh Explores Atlas Shrugged’s Deeper Themes

Philosopher Diana Hsieh, who recorded a wonderful series of podcasts about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, discussed some of the novel’s deeper themes April 6 at Liberty On the Rocks, Denver. As her main example Hsieh focused on the psychological destruction of the scientist Robert Stadler.

(Be sure to read all about my financial links to Hsieh, as the FTC unjustly requires me to post, and which illustrates why the agency should be abolished.)

Project Reason Videos Released

Project Reason has announced the finalists for its video contest.

In my view, the best of the bunch is “Think,” an elegant silent cartoon about succeeding through reason:

My second-favorite video is “The Tutor,” about a woman who tells children some lesser-known Bible stories:

I also enjoyed “New Age Medic,” which pokes fun at some of the sillier forms of “treatments” on the market:

While I too submitted a video to the contest, I had no illusions I would become a finalist. (Because of delayed permissions, I didn’t actually start the video until the day it was due.) My cinematography leaves much to be desired, and several people have been quick to point out that my handwriting is atrocious. However, the content is interesting.

What inspired me to make the video is that, though Ayn Rand preceded Sam Harris in attacking moral skepticism and relativism by half a century,Harris’s book contains not a single reference to Rand, not even in a footnote, judging from Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book” feature. And Harris’s moral theory suffers myriad weaknesses that Rand corrects.(Project Reason “was founded by Sam Harris and Annaka Harris.”) So I submitted a video not to try to win the contest, but simply to point out to Harris and others that, if they regard well-being as central to morality and see moral relativism as dangerous, they ought to take a look at what Rand had to say on those matters.

Why Ayn Rand Trumps Sam Harris on Ethics

I submitted a video to the Project Reason video contest.

Following is the transcript:

What is morality?

Where does it come from?

What is its justification?

In his recent work on ethical theory, “new atheist” Sam Harris argues that morality consists of achieving well-being. Harris argues that our well-being is a matter of fact, and therefore morality can be developed as a science.

Harris adeptly argues that the secular left has fallen into moral skepticism and relativism, holding that nobody can rationally evaluate morality, and one culture’s practices must be as good as any other’s.

Harris retorts that it is obviously better to be secure, healthy, and happy than it is to be brutally raped and murdered in tribal warfare. Thus, actions consonant with achieving the first state are morally superior to actions leading to the second.

Unfortunately, Harris’s own moral theory suffers a fatal flaw. Harris depends on alleged intuitions pointing us to the greatest well-being of conscious beings, a sort of utilitarianism.

Harris’s view leads to irresolvable difficulties.

Why should cultures that value domination and the warrior ideal listen to what Harris has to say?

Does morality demand that we achieve the well-being of non-human animals, and to what degree?

[I realize that Harris does answer the above two questions, though I do not think he can adequately do so.]

Does the well-being of some require the sacrifice of others?

Harris in effect reduces his own position to absurdity. In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]

But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.

While some might see Harris’s case against moral relativism as cutting-edge, in fact novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand beat Harris to the punch half a century ago.

Moreover, Rand outlined a moral theory based on the individual’s rational self-interests. For people that entails living virtuously and respecting others’ rights.

Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.

Under no circumstance would Rand sanction as moral the sacrifice of one’s self, or the sacrifice of one’s species, for the benefit of others.

Instead, Rand recognized that only when each individual lives for his or her own life-serving values, can people live together by reason and for mutual advantage.

***

oshualipana commented February 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM
Nice too see another well reasoned attack on that charlatan.

Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 3:33 PM
“In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]”

That is a hideous misreading of the text. The comparison being made is fish to humans as it relates to Robert Nozick’s position on whether eating meat is moral or not (in Harris’s view it is, since eating meat garners a net well being for a person). He extends this analogy to beings that are to humans what humans are to bacteria. Would it be morally justifiable for them to use us to serve their utility? Is a fish morally justified in its struggle against a fisherman?

“Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.”

What do you mean by advances? Advances to what end? Or shall I give you more credit in understanding than you are willing to extend to Harris?

AriA commented pril 7, 2011 at 4:17 PM
Dear Lumnicence, I am NOT misreading Harris’s text, “hideously” or otherwise. I simply quoted it verbatim from his book. If you don’t like that text, I suggest you take it up with Harris, not me. In Rand’s theory, one’s life IS the moral end, and it can be advanced only through legitimate moral virtues. -Ari

Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 7:41 PM
Dear Ari,

I know that you did quote directly (and correctly for that matter), but the meaning was either missed or disdended. By saying:
“But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.”
…I’m just saying that wasn’t what was meant by the text. In context, what he meant was merely that if there were superbeings (like aliens, or whatever), we would be out of touch with their moral reality as ants are out of touch with our morality.

And I thought the objective goal of objectivism was the happiness of the individual concerned? Just as happiness avoids being pinned down in defintion, changing from person to person or even within the same person over time, well-being is also difficult to define, but no less comprehensible.

Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 7:44 PM
My problem with “well-being” is not that it is “difficult to define,” but that, in Harris’s usage, it depends on false notions of utilitarianism. The relationship between a person’s life and a person’s happiness is complex and not something I’m prepared to discuss in a blog comment. But I do think those things are intimately connected.

Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 8:02 PM
Let me clarify. My primary problem with Harris’s use of “well-being” is not that it is complex or difficult to define. Rather, my point is that Harris’s conception of “well-being” is “nebulous and ill-defined,” and cannot ultimately form the basis of a coherent moral philosophy, because it rests on utilitarian premises which are at root arbitrary and incoherent.

Anonymous commented April 27, 2011 at 9:42 PM
Great video, great logic! Would that Sam Harris read Rand before he started opening his mouth to larger and larger audiences!

Barry commented August 30, 2011 at 9:48 PM
Dear Ari,
I think Mr. Harris answered quite well the objections that he foresaw with respect to the “nebulous” nature of “well-being” when he compared it very effectively with health. Health is an equally nebulous concept, yet, would you also argue that since the field of medicine rests on the premise of health that it cannot be a coherent or moral undertaking?

Ari commented August 30, 2011 at 10:07 PM
I actually like Harris’s comparisons to health. Only I’m not merely arguing that his notion of “well-being” is nebulous; I’m arguing that it is irredeemably undefinable and indefensible, because there is no basis for his utilitarianism. (I recognize there’s much more to say to make a complete case about this.)

GeoPorcupine commented April 1, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Both are wrong, but I’ll focus on Rand since Harris was already discussed. Utilitiarianism has a lot of problems (though so does deontology), and well-being is either overly vague or tautologically good (leading to it’s moral to be good – whoopdie doo). Back to Rand…

Life and death, basically natural selection, determine what is possible, not what is good or bad. To claim otherwise is to fall into the naturalistic fallacy. All moralities will necessarily eliminate impossibilities, but may contain possibilities, even in some cases necessities, which Rand would likely object to, such as slavery and forced sterilization.

Secondly, there’s no non-value reason to grant rights to others. Individuals thrive quite well in societies where rights aren’t completely respected, so life and death have nothing to say here. While I need to respect my own values, why do I need to respect others? Perhaps people would do better in societies where everyone was completely individualistic, perhaps not. That’s a question subject to empirical study. Rand has not convinced me here, and neither has Harris.

My favorite ethical philosopher currently is Alonzo Fyfe, though he misses some important things too.