Public choice is a sub-discipline of economics and political science that attempts to explain the public policy process via economic models. It has also been described as the application of economic theory to non-market situations. The field can be traced back to the middle portion of the 20th century with scholars such as Anthony Downs, James Buchanan, Kenneth Arrow, and Gordon Tullock making seminal contributions to, and defining, this field of study. These and other scholars have had a broad impact on the study of economics and politics, with several Nobel Prizes going to people working in the public choice arena (e.g., Buchanan, Arrow, and Tullock). One of the main contributions of public choice theory has been to point out that politicians, contrary to being servants who make policy based upon the "common good" (much like Plato's philosopher kings), are motivated by self-interest as much as individuals within the private sector. Objectives such as maximizing power or securing re-election tend to predominate in the public sector, whereas profit-seeking (in a financial sense) tends to motivate those within the private sector. However, these goals often blur between our private and public sector actors, and both attempt to use one another to further their own ends. Interest group politics, the manipulation of voting rules, and rent-seeking behavior arise as common topics of study within this field. Nonetheless, scholars within the public choice school still study the fundamental questions of social science and political economy: What explains human action? How are resources allocated in society?
This course will take a more philosophical look at the subject area of public choice with an emphasis on the work of Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Ronald Coase, James Buchanan, and a smattering of others. The course serves as a nice complement to our department's offering Political Strategy (POL S 476).