The Pre-Public Choice View

I always thought the view that the private sector is full of greed and self-interest, while the public sector is all about selflessness and public service, was confined to 1950s civics books. But lo and behold, it turns out that view is still held by federal appointees interviewed by NPR:

“We’ve always thought of the government as motivated by a sense of service to the people,” says Charles Tiefer, whom Congress appointed earlier this year to the new Commission on Wartime Contracting, which oversees Pentagon contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re getting away from that [by contracting out government services].”

After all, he says, federal employees take an oath to the Constitution, while private contractors are just motivated by their own economic interest. It’s a lovely vision, and apparently some people actually believe it. But about 50 years ago the public choice economists, such as James M. Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and William Niskanen, began to suggest that people in government are still people, with all their good and bad characteristics. And also that analyzing the actions of government in the light of self-interest leads to pretty sound predictions and observations. As Buchanan put it in an interview:

I usually have a three-word description [of public choice economics] – it is “politics without romance”. Politics is a romantic search for the good and the true and the beautiful. “Public choice” came along and said, “Why don’t we model people more or less like everyday persons? Politicians and bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us. They will maximize their incentives just like everybody else.” By taking that very simple starting point, you get a completely different view of politics and its analysis.

Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for his insights, but obviously they haven’t fully permeated Washington yet.