The rational anthem

February 17, 1995

Criticism of rational choice theory is nothing new to Gordon Tullock, who has a joint appointment in economics and political science at the University of Arizona at Tucson. "They (the critics) have been saying this for 30 years.''.

But today's critics are wrong, he says. Far from fading away, rational choice, or public choice, theory is gaining ground in the United States. He says 90 per cent of economists are rational choice types, though the same cannot be said of political scientists. The bulk of political scientists remain devoted to "old-fashioned ideas'', he explains.

Tullock, 73, was one of the Virginia school, a group of economists forced out of the University of Virginia in the mid-1960s for their political views. They called their approach "public choice'' because they were applying economic models of decision-making to the public sector. They believed that what drives people politically is the same as what drives them economically: self-interest.

Tullock started the first journal on public choice and wrote a book, The Politics of Bureaucracy, which said bureaucrats were committed to expanding their empires. Today he recants that thesis, at least partially. "I now think various parts were oversimplifying matters. It is not always true that bureaucracies maximise their empires."

But of the basic thesis of rational choice - that people try to maximise their preferences (that is, act selfishly) - he has no doubt. The idea is more accepted than ever, says Tullock, as shown by articles in standard political science journals and the way academics use rational choice arguments. Moreover, the approach is personified in the legislature in the shape of Republican Dick Armey, a former economics professor from Texas and new majority whip in the House of Representatives. "He is aware of, and interested in, rational choice methods,'' says Tullock.

"In Washington we have an association composed of senior people in the civil service,'' says Tullock. "We meet and talk over issues. We're doing quite well in the federal capital. I don't mean we're sweeping the board . . . but we have never before had anybody as powerful as Armey on our side.''

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