Reviews - What do customers think about Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice?
Oversimplified Theory Oct 25, 2005
The other reviewers have provided well-stated synopses of the arguments so I will skip to my opinion of the book.
"Government Failure" is a quick dip into political theory. It presents a particular school of thought and how that school would (should) perceive the current state of government. One can read the book in an afternoon and feel as though one has learned something. What it lacks, however, is a compelling argument that would convince anyone reading the theory with a critical eye.
One of the first problems is that even Mr. Tullock, a founder of the theory, does not actually like the term "public choice". Mr. Seldon also questions the appropriateness of the term. Coining a term, using it in a book title, then undermining its applicability in that same book casts some doubt on how thoroughly they have thought through this.
A second problem is that most claims made are unsubstantiated. What the reader is getting is logic that interpolates personal opinion and presents it as a truth. It is a perfectly acceptable approach when one considers this a philosophical tract, but not an acceptable approach if the intent is to "tell it like it is".
A third, more egregious problem, is the looseness of the the term "self interest". I would argue that, much like the demand curve, the meaning and degree of self interest a person demonstrates is not constant, but subject to external influencers or moods. Thus it is not necessarily a contradiction to expect an elected official to behave in a manner that has nothing to do with his/her interest in getting re-elected. This does not mean they don't care; it just means that it is not a factor in the decision.
Alas, this brief treatise does not do a credible job of defining terms. It does a somewhat better job with "log rolling" but chooses to define "rent seeking" using the words "rent" and "seek" in its definition. The rent-seeking examples provided were also less illuminating. One that stands out has to do with the mortgage deduction on the income tax. I believe Tullock is arguing that by making homeownership look attractive it ends up costing people more to move from one domicle to another than it would if they just stayed in apartments. But he doesn't explicitly state that, or even connect the dots for you.
Moreover, to use the loosely defined "self-interet" argument, it is reasonable to think that several factors come into play when a person chooses to buy a residence versus renting. People are very good at rationalizing decisions that on paper do not appear to be the most economically efficient. Why? Because the bottom line is not always the driver of human decisions.
Finally, question the critical praise on the back of the cover. One professor is quoted as saying "The scope of government control and activity has burgeoned far beyond the conception of the founders of the American republic." Consider the government's mission (aka the Preamble to the Consitution): form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. These are very broad statements indeed; it seems reasonable to argue that several interpretations were possible at the time they were made, just as several are possible now.
This book is a somewhat useful introduction to a theory that doesn't seem to have a good name. It is a good book for information gathering but not particularly enlightening.
An Introduction to Public Choice Economics Sep 19, 2005
Gordon Tullock offers an insightful analysis of the economic costs of rent-seeking to society at large. Generally, rent-seeking involves spoliation of one party or society at large by the instrumentality of the law for the betterment of another party. The rent-seeking phenomenon has reached crescendo in the twentieth-century. "The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else," as Frederic Bastiat has said.
Many public choice economists emphasize the value of federalism or decentralization and for good reason. Federalism is in essence a division and a widespread diffusion of powers. However, in my humble opinion, the competitive element of federalism as it presently stands is rather diminutive. Federalism as it stands doesn't bode well for the states, the Tenth Amendment, and overall economic efficiency, as it is wrought with unfunded mandates from the central government and a top-down centralized state that knows little if any restraints on its forcible interventions, regulations, and redistribution activities. It is not that federalism is not conducive to competition, but rather that the architecture of a truly federal system has been eradicated in favor of a top-down unitary state with only vestigial republican elements remaining. Thus, the competitive nature of the present system is marginal compared to what it could be if it were a truly federal system. However, in recognizing the virtues and merits of federalism from an economic perspective as the public choice economists adroitly do, one can make a case for restoring federalism not only on constitutional grounds but also on economic grounds.
Perhaps the one downside to this book is that Arthur Seldon writes a somewhat mediocre introduction to this primer on public choice economics citing the abdication of Abraham Lincoln's vision of "a government of the people, for the people, and by the people" while presumptively proclaiming that Lincoln would be appalled at the application of economics to politics today. In reality, Lincoln was the pioneer swashbuckler politician who advanced spoliation of the many for the enrichment of a cadre of special interests, and he mastered rent-seeking, log-rolling, and protectionism. Being the quintessential Whig-Republican, he embraced spoliation of the common man for the aristocracy of privilege and patronage. Asked of Lincoln: "Why not let the South go in peace?" Response of Lincoln: "Who would pay for the government?" No book is perfect!
I'm receptive to the ideas of public choice economists, but there is much to be wanted. This book just doesn't quite do it for me. I would recommend that anyone interested in public choice economics just dive into Gordon Tullock's other books.
Poor book at best fit for introductory undergraduate courses Jun 15, 2004
Not terribly useful, though a good introductory review of log-rolling and rent-seeking. Might perhaps do as a book for an introductory Political Science course if backed up with significant amounts of other material.
A superb treatment of rent-seeking and log-rolling Aug 13, 2003
Since this is a book written by three authors separately, I shall discuss each part on its own, but first a few general remarks.
My biggest gripe is that the primary topic is not "public choice" per se, but rather "rent-seeking" with some discussion about externalities and so forth. While the discussion is illuminating and generally crisp and comprehensible, the over-use of the term "public choice analyis" proved annoying: Hardly a page went by without "public choice analyis," sometimes twice in the same sentence.
The general thrust of the text is that, however well-intentioned, no government can sustain a vibrant and diverse welfare-state over the long-term. Entrenched bureaucracies simply can't cope with the vagaries and varieties of human desires. Only the free market can hope to provide for the panoply of individuals' interests.
Part I: A concise, lucid, introduction to the theory of public choice. Professor Tullock has a definitely "small-government" mentality (which I share), but his discussion is still even-handed. The sole problem I have is that the few tables and graphs he employs are completely unitelligible to me. Fortunately, they're not essential, as his writing should be clear enough. The most important topics are rent-seeking and log-rolling, the former of which is the topic most treated by the co-authors. Also of interest is the discussion about bureaucracies.
Part II: A far ranging, perhaps wandering, discussion of the application of rent-seeking to American regulatory policy. Brady writes with a slightly more fervent tone than does Tullock, with a clear but tempered opinion of the roles lawyers, regulators, etc. Generally interesting, but the chapters somewhat lack coherence with each other beyond the theory.
Part III: Sheldon here presents the most entertaining and forcefully written section of the book. Full of vigor, he brings ip several issues that are of critical interest to proponents of small government: the Fabian fallacy, the growth of addiction to the welfare-state, and the welfare-state's role in the collapse of the family.
A great introduction for the interested student of politics or economics.
The introduction was a failure Dec 14, 2002
Arthur Seldon uses Abraham Lincoln as an example of a leader who believed in limited government, "of the people, by the people, and for the people". In actuality, Lincoln lead a failed government attempt at state railroad building when he was in the Illinois legislature. He instituted the first conscription in the United States, and the first income tax. He lead the charge of an unconstitutional export tax on Southern cotton and then an actual blockade. He intimidated the Supreme Court and executed Union soldiers for sleeping on duty. Seldon should do a bit of reading about Lincoln before he uses him as an icon for small government. I, personally, was so turned off by the introduction that I couldn't bring myself to read the book.