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Public Choice Theory Inoculates People from Poor Policy

In places big and small, one of the many questions for residents is this: is holding government office, whether elected or appointed, a more virtuous way of life than private activity? 

If it should prove more virtuous, then one can reasonably contend that long-tenured government officials are, themselves, more virtuous than private citizens.

One could think of this as the theory of the noble Romans, as tribunes of the people, as selfless defenders of all.

This idea of government office as an especially noble calling is false: human nature does not change when a man or woman enters public office.  People are self-interested by nature, and this nature does not change when one sits behind a government desk. 

Of public and private, one is neither better nor worse than the other.  It’s the insistence that public life is a better way that presents countless problems for society.  There’s as much virtue in being a baker as there is in being governor.

It’s impossible, truly, to read early (and foundational) American political theory without seeing that the Founders understood that self-interest afflicts all, including government officials.

Needless to say, ceaselessly insisting that government work is noble work, as though government officials were contemplative monks in a monastery, gives government officials two false (but useful) claims to make against critics:

1.  That they should necessarily be given particular deference in society over private citizens, and

2.  That their ideas and plans should necessarily be given particular deference over private citizens’ ideas or assessments.

Neither claim is true, but they work a certain magic on the impressionable or insecure, rendering men and women who should live well and reasonably into mere subjects who live poorly and under a false impression.  
Public choice theory cures people of the false impression that a few government men are better than others, teaching correctly that human nature is the same among those in public or private life.

(This is, of course, a simplification of that theory, yet an accurate description of one of its key tenets.)

In the same way, the strength of human reasoning, and tools of analysis, are equally available to all, whether publicly or privately situated.  That a public man proposes a plan does not render the plan immune to the principles of reasoning available to private criticism.

The surest policies, to the extent anything is sure, come from officials who present simply and plainly, without grand claims or giddy anticipation, recognizing that useful assessments and critiques may come from any corner, including the many private residents within a community.  

For more about Public Choice Theory, see Key Insights of Public Choice Thinking @ the Cato Institute.

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