An Auction of Stolen Goods

In an essay titled “Sham Battle” published in October 1936 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, H. L. Mencken enunciated a truth that is one of the core axioms of public choice theory. That axiom is the homely truth that politicians are people just like the rest of us. Homely truths, as Mark Twain recognized, are unpalatable. But they are true nonetheless.

People are motivated by their self-interest in their private lives. That is not to say that they are narrowly selfish but rather that they do what they believe to be in their interest, whatever those interests may be — including altruism if that is what interests them.

Homely truths endure. In 1936 Mencken wrote, “The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me.”

James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock developed public choice theory (PCT) in the 1960s. One of the assumptions of PCT is of behavioral symmetry: people behave the same way in their public capacity as they do in their private capacity. The person in the marketplace is the same person in the voting booth. A person is not transformed from a self-interested being with imperfect knowledge, foresight and morality in his private capacity into an other-directed being with perfect knowledge, foresight and goodwil in his public role as a politician, bureaucrat or a voter. By being elected or appointed to a public office, a person does not magically get endowed with the ability to know “the public good” and pursue that diligently. In other words, politicians are just like the rest of us. Don’t expect them to be better than you’d expect people to be. Continue reading