No Free Lunch: Economics for a Fallen World: Third Edition, Revised

Chapter Fourteen: Decision-making in Democracy: Public Choice 322 THE NATURE OF POLITICAL DECISION-MAKING: SELF-INTEREST! 2 Samuel 15 Absalom’s Conspiracy 1 Now it came about after this that Absalom provided for himself a chariot and horses and fifty men as runners before him. 2 Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way to the gate; and when any man had a suit to come to the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, “From what city are you?” And he would say, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.” 3 Then Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.” 4 Moreover, Absalom would say, “Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.” 5 And when a man came near to prostrate himself before him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. 6 In this manner Absalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel. Lower taxes, a more compassionate government, and free health care for all! Politicians are widely known for trying to “bribe” voters with campaign promises—you give me political power and I’ll do this for you. We don’t exactly like to think of it as a bribe, but the reality is that voters cast their vote based on the perception of what that politician is going to do for them. The voters may simply want justice, or there may be a road project near their home, or even a bridge to nowhere. What the politicians want may be a better nation, pork-barrel spending for their state (explained later in the chapter), or raw political power. But for selfish or noble purposes, politicians need power. For many years, political science modeled the public sector (bureaucrats, politicians, judges) as acting in the “public interest.” Yet many of the politicians’ actions seemed to benefit them personally—as the saying goes, they went to Washington to do good and ended up doing well. Some economists, led by Nobel Laureate James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, began to model public servants with the same assumptions that govern everyone else: individuals acting in their own self-interest. You are probably not surprised that these self-interest models of public sector behavior are much more accurate than public interest models. In this scriptural example from 2 Samuel, we see how both “politicians” (Absalom) and “voters” (the Israelites) behave. Even though ancient Israel didn’t have a democracy, those wanting power must have support of at least a significant portion of the population. Politicians seeking power promise to give the people what they want, and they often rationalize that their self-interest is the public interest, “we need justice.” Absalom may have even been able to convince himself that murdering his father David was in the public interest, and many may have agreed; but fortunately, that was not the Lord’s plan.