Sometimes Politicians’ Own Thoughts and Interests Matter for Understanding Policy

Even though public choice has not taken the economics profession by storm, there’s a kind of crude public choice that is popular among libertarians and libertarian-leaning people who are skeptical of government. Moreover, I have heard even some public choice scholars express this view. When the government does something destructive, say many such people, one should “churchez la monnaie.” That is, one should look for who stands to benefit. So far, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of thinking. Looking at who stands to gain is a necessary first step in understanding why the policy came about. One might well find a particular lobby pushed for a policy that no politician was thinking much about and that members of this lobby stand to benefit from.

The problem comes when one restricts oneself to such explanations and refuses to look at other possibilities. I remember years ago an economist friend arguing with a public choice economist about the late Edward Kennedy. Both disliked the particular policies he was promoting that they were discussing. That wasn’t the issue. Rather, the issue was what motivated Ted Kennedy. This public choice scholar insisted that Kennedy was pushing particular policies because those policies would make Kennedy wealthier. My economist friend, and I, doubted and doubt this.

Another example. I was in a discussion on Facebook last week in which I said that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 had little to do with oil. The FB “friend” replied, “What was it about? Weapons of Mass Destruction? LOL.” “No,” I said, and when I tried to argue that both Bush and Cheney had their own motives, independent of oil companies and independent of the defense industries including Halliburton, I got nowhere. This guy was locked into the idea that economic interests narrowly defined explain everything.

In early 1979, a libertarian group in Rochester, New York that I was involved with invited the late William H. Meckling to give a talk about the draft. Senator Sam Nunn and others were pushing to revive the draft. In Q&A, a member of the audience asked Bill what interest groups were pushing for the draft. Bill paused and then said, “Congress.” In context, he meant some members of Congress, notably Senator Nunn. I had never heard such an answer, but when I worked in Washington from 1982 to 1984, I came to Meckling’s view that Congress and the President are, to some extent, independent entities that push for policies they favor, and that interest group explanations often don’t work well. They often do work well, but there are a fair number of issues on which various politicians are simply pushing their own agenda.

I’m guessing that there’s some public choice literature that takes the Meckling view seriously, but I don’t know it. Zac Gochenour and I published an article suggesting that Presidents sometimes get into wars in order to be thought of as great. But that’s just one example. Does anyone have some cites on this?