Nobel Laureate James Buchanan described public choice theory as “politics without romance.” By this I take him to mean that public choice theory strips from politics its sweeping visions and rhetorical grandeur. Not only is public choice theory a means of stealing fire from politics, it is a means of extinguishing that fire completely. Without his rhetorical fire the politician becomes what he once was, or at least in our system what he was supposed to be: a servant.
Rhetoric, intentions and promises are tools of the political trade. They are what politicians use to convince the rest of us that they alone are capable of identifying and solving our problems. That politicians trade on promises, not results, is not unique to them. It is a characteristic they share with much of modern advertising. The advertiser promises you a smiling family provided you purchase a certain cookie or ice cream, or laundry detergent. The politician promises you a smiling family provided you vote for him, so that he may get the chance to give you a higher minimum wage, or free healthcare. The similarity ends at your right to refuse the fruits of these promises. If you purchase the cookie or ice cream or laundry detergent and it fails to satisfy you and your family, you can return it, and often get your money back. At the very least you are completely free not to purchase it ever again, and even tell your friends somewhat exaggerated stories about how bad the cookie tasted, or how poorly the laundry detergent cleaned your clothes. You cannot return a bad public policy, even one you did not vote for. It becomes law, and in most cases begets hundreds if not thousands of bureaucrats with a vested interest in seeing the policy thrive regardless of its real costs to you or society.
Public choice neutralizes political rhetoric by assuming behavioral symmetry between public and private actors. If we must criticize the private entrepreneur for being self-interested, then we must do the same for the public servant, so called. They are both human—according to public choice theory, there is no mechanism within politics that transforms the human heart. Public choice also assumes that people respond to incentives in political institutions just as they do in market institutions. Implicit in this assumption is that there may be within our democratic system institutions preventing politicians from acting in the interest of those they supposedly serve. In other words, their spineless pandering is not entirely their fault; temptation is rife in a system of concentrated benefits and disbursed costs.
Imagine a politics without romance. Imagine political seasons not charged with cheap emotional pandering and patriotic chest-puffing. How would politicians respond to a public that had no use for their secret rhetorical fire? I imagine many would go home—term limits might be voluntarily imposed. Few would want a job in which the supervisors clearly understood the employee’s limitations and his likelihood of being distracted or bought off. Demand for campaign financing would dry up because the nature of the political job would have fundamentally changed. No longer would it be acceptable to make one promise to get elected and then neglect that promise to stay elected. Coalitions formed across parties or across the public and private sectors would melt away, their ability to wrest profits by disbursing costs effectively eliminated. The dead-weight loss of government would be much reduced.
I do not know if such a world is possible. I would like to think it is.