Public choice: what to read

Jonathan G asks:

What concepts in public choice economics do you think liberals are under-exposed to? Can you recommend some books or articles?

I am not sure what he means by "liberals" so I will answer the question straight up about public choice.  I recommend:

1. Dennis Mueller, Public Choice III.  The best survey of the field, though this is an academic rather than a popular book.  On voting theory — an overrated area in my view – try Peter Ordeshook.

2. Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations.  The best applied explanation of the logic of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.  

3. Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter.  On the democratic side of the equation.  Anthony Downs is still worth reading as well, though it needs a cheaper edition than $75.  Also read Daniel Klein on The People's Romance.

4. For "pro-government public choice," see Amihai Glazer and Lawrence Rothenberg, Why Government Succeeds and Why it Fails.  Also see my piece, with Glazer (an underrated public choice economist), "Rent-Seeking Promotes the Provision of Public Goods" (gated).

5. Buchanan and Tullock are among the most important public choice economists, but they don't come in canonical, easy to digest form.  Any recommendations here?  Liberty Fund has done the complete works.

6. Read Robin Hanson's blog posts on "politics isn't about policy."

7. An underrated topic is the application of behavioral economics to politicians and also voters and even special interest groups.

8. For understanding the U.S. system, I very much like David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics; oddly the paperback is priced at four times the hardcover.

9. Overall I recommend comparative approaches with other countries (start with Arend Ljiphart, plus Matt Yglesias has had good blog posts on this topic) and acquiring an anthropological and sociological understanding of political legitimacy and perception of interest.  The rational choice literature often neglects those topics.

10. Here is my short review on the public choice of finance and big government.

11. For frontier research, see the papers of Andrei Shleifer and Daron Acemoglu.  There is plenty of good applied research in political science, although this is less of a foundational place to start.

From the classics, there is Plato's Republic (a critique of tyranny in my view), Robert Michels Political Parties, Tocqueville's Democracy in America (politics as culture), and various Vilfredo Pareto essays, I am no longer sure which volume they are collected in (edited by Finer?).  The Federalist Papers are impressive, but are they impressive to read?

What am I neglecting?


Hi. Your choice of link concerning "application of behavioral economics to politicians" is intriguing, to say the least...Was that what you really had in mind?

Point taken on federalist papers. A better read is Locke's Two Treatises on Government.

Its Old Testament rebuttal of monarchical power (divine right of kings) fascinates still.

How about some of Bob Tollison's work

What concepts in public choice economics do you think conservatives are under-exposed to? Can you recommend some books or articles?

Excellent recommendation of the Stockman book. It's really an under-read classic.

Plato's Republic, but not James Burnham's The Machiavellians? Robin Hanson's blog posts, but not Anthony de Jasay's The State?

I'm confused, what is it about public choice theory that mandates one must be conservative in order to accept it? Considering that in the modern era, it's the liberals who are most worried about regulatory and special-interest capture, I'm having a hard time figuring out why PC isn't useful to all stripes.

To introduce the topic and raise excitement I'd focus on policy dimension going straight as arrow to what James M Buchanan calls "the constitutional part of the public choice program".

Can't do better than talk Buchanan gave in Japan to Asian Public Choice Society in 1997 titled "Generality as a Constitutional Constraint". Find easily at Liberty Fund in the collected works of Buchanan, Volume 1, The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty.

There ends by saying "My own fear at century's end is that the extended commitments of modern welfare democracies may have created conditions where ruling coalitions will be tempted to resolve apparent fiscal crises by moving away from, rather than toward, generality." Proved true.

Debates between Buchanan and Hayek *around these issues* (as Dambisa Moyo has a habit of saying) are relevant.

Mancur Olson and William Niskanen also indispensable for the initial cross-over with political science in origins and practical application.

My own initiation many years ago came when found languishing neglected on library shelf at university of Sussex the following accessible little collection -- Buchanan et al, The Economics of Politics (1978). Which says it all.

Or in place of all above just expose the liberals to this extremity --

We read "The Logic of Collective Action" by Olson in Public Choice class. "Rise and Decline" was read by the same class this year and the professor prefered it because it was similar material that was more applicable.

How about The Calculus of Consent?

Mueller is my favorite book on the topic.

I don't think voting rules are overrated at all. Civil wars have begun over inefficient voting rules.

The New Palgrave has a book on Rational Choice and Sociology. Is there a New Palgrave compendium just for Public Choice?

There are some Public Finance texts that give a page or two to Public Choice. I think the broader topic of Public Finance should be read by all economists and most people, , but I'm biased.

and after you have read the public choice theories, you could go back to Robert Michels' "Political Parties" and its statement of the Iron Law of Oligarchy (public choice is just this in another dress).

And then read Hugh Stretton's critique of the theory (Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice).

A good ideological theory is just true enough to convince, just false enough to mislead in the desired direction.

More classics: Machiavelli's "Discourses", of course, nothing beats it for concentrated analysis, and Polybius, Book VI.

No one should read anything written by Bryan Caplan.

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