Editor’s note: Shawn Regan, at PERC (the “Property and Environment Research Center”), has written a useful essay on the concept of ecological environmentalism in the latest issue of PERC Reports. Good reading for a Saturday morning.
In 1986, James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for changing the way we think about politics. Buchanan’s key insight was that economists should use the same methods to analyze political behavior as they do to understand economic behavior. He helped establish a new form of economic analysis known as public choice theory, which Buchanan described in just three words: “politics without romance.”
Public choice theory, Buchanan argued, “models the realities rather than the romance of political institutions.” Politicians, bureaucrats, and voters, like people engaging in everyday market exchanges, are motivated primarily by their own self-interest, rather than the public interest.
This was a simple insight, but it had important implications. There had long been a certain degree of romance in politics, even among economists. Politicians were modeled as selfless public servants promoting the public’s interests, rather than their own. Bureaucrats advanced their agencies’ missions, not their own budgets or authority. And voters sought to improve the public good, not to extract political favors for their personal benefit. By the time Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize, this idealized view of politics was no longer seen as a valid approach to economic analysis. “The romance is gone,” Buchanan said in 1979, “perhaps never to be regained.”