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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Public Choice & Local Voice

I just posted on SSRN a draft chapter entitled "Federalism and Public Choice." (The chapter is to be included in a collection on Law and Public Choice, edited by Dan Farber and Anne Joseph O'Connell and published by Elgar).

Writing this survey about public choice and federalism left me with the odd feeling that the literature really has nothing to say about public choice and federalism. The literature is overwhelmingly focused on individual choice, not public choice: The vast majority of the scholarship revolves around Tiebout's idea that an individual's decisions to migrate between jurisdictions reveals those individuals' preferences for local public goods. Since the 1980s, political scientists have added a theory of political economy to Tiebout's theory of locational economies, arguing that central governments cannot be trusted to decentralize power to state and local governments, because central legislatures (1) promote universalistic coalitions through pork-barrel spending; (2) behave in a predatory "Leviathan"-like manner to maximize their own budgets (Brennan & Buchanan); or (3) are captured by cartel-promoting business interests (Barry Weingast).

None of this literature about the alleged flaws of national politics says much about what subnational politicians want. The ability to migrate from a badly governed subnational jurisdiction is just going from frying pan to fire unless somehow subnational politicians can be made to care about losing tax base, population, property value, etc. Of course, the obvious mechanism is voting, but public choice theorists do not seem to believe that voting helps much, citing the usual problems of rational ignorance, collective action problems in forming interest groups, unstable majorities, etc.

The paucity of public choice scholarship on the ways in which scale of jurisdiction affects political choice is especially odd in American political theory. The Anti-Federalists and Jacksonians were, in a sense, America's original public choice theorists: They were obsessed with the private corruption of public power, but they thought that subnational politics, not interjurisdictional mobility, was the cure. Where has this American tradition of federalism and public choice gone?

Posted by Rick Hills on February 4, 2009 at 01:24 PM | Permalink


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While I'm not sure about the Jacksonians, I'm inclined to think the anti-Federalist concern with private virtue writ large succumbed to the cumulative corrosive effects of ideas that commenced in the modern period with Machiavelli, continued through Hobbes, received quintessential formulation in Mandeville (as Russell Hardin notes, 'Mandeville was reviled but helped to move moral theory away from its concentration on the virtues [as did Machiavelli and Hobbes before him]'), and eventually led to the strict separation between ethical standards of private or personal conduct in the family/intimate spheres and ethical standards for collective conduct and political life (in a conventional sense) in general; the paramount point being the considerably lower expectations if not standards in the latter realm, or at least the idea that many of the cardinal virtues from ancient Greece through Judaism and Christianity (these traditions having distinct if overlapping virtues) were simply too stringent and thus no longer relevant for political (and especially commercial) life, even if, as with Machiavelli, the notion persisted that they were no less important to living a proper (Christian) life...in the familial or personal sphere!

It's possible anti-Federalist views on this score were dismissed owing to their unfortuitous yet historically contingent association with small-scale republicanism such as that articulated by Montesquieu, which no longer seemed relevant to the coordination problems that faced the defenders of the Constitution (Russell Hardin's argument). For instance, Hardin writes

"That [Richard Henry] Lee and many others in the new nation were still under the sway of the powerful view that avarice is the supreme vice is not surprising. But in what was soon to be the most commercial and avaricious of all societies, they were of fading importance. Politically, they were a residue." And so too, alas, was their traditional moral theory.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 4, 2009 2:03:41 PM

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