Introduction to Public Choice Theory

By Leon Felkins

Written Jan. 10, 1997

Latest revision: 12/22/13

"Everybody's business is nobody's business."
-- Russell Hardin, Collective Choice, 1982.

The social phenomena discussed in this series of essays all center around the problem of individuals in groups faced with the choice of doing what is best for themselves or what is best for the group. Instances of the phenomena are called by many different names: "Volunteer's Dilemma", "Prisoner's Dilemma", "Collective Choice", "Rational Choice", "Social Choice", and "Voter's Paradox" to list just a few. Unfortunately, the academic programs that cover these various manifestations of the "individual vs. group" dilemma do not fall under one discipline. You will not find the "Social Dilemma" department at any university.[1] But you can specialize in certain aspects of the general problem by signing up in the Political or Economics departments (and possibly others). In particular, some universities now offer an advanced degree specializing in what is called Public Choice Theory, (e.g., George Mason University), and several offer specialization in "Political Economics", (e.g. University of Washington or in "Political Economy", University of Michigan).

Public Choice Theory is directed toward the study of politics based on ecomonic principles. I would think you would be immediately puzzled by this, since most universities already have a Political Science department. The problem is that until Public Choice Theory came along, universities did not teach the way politics actually functions but, instead, taught the way it should work ideally or the way they wished it would work. This practice of teaching what should be (normative theory) rather than what is (positive theory) is fairly common at universities and continues to this day at most universities, in politics as well as other disciplines. Fortunately, if you look carefully, you can find some universities that teach the facts about politics, to the best of our abilities to understand it, and that discipline is called Public Choice. I should point out that Public Choice is actually more general than just politics, but that is its main emphasis.

Let us examine various aspects of the theory.


1. If physics were taught with the same lack of organization, you would have to go to one department to study gases, another to study fluids, and another to study solids. For another example of the lack of centralization, consider the early days of computers. When computer science first hit the universities, it was often covered by several departments; Business, Engineering, Mathematics, etc. It took awhile before the courses were (mostly) consolidated under one department.

2. See books and/or articles by Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Will Rogers, for example.


Other references are identified at the end of the Voter's Paradox essay.

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