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public choice theory

  Deriving from Duncan Black\'s (1958) pioneering work, public choice theory considers topics normally covered by political science, such as voting behaviour (cf. electoral geography), the bureaucracy, party politics, and the theory of the state, but examines them using the analytical techniques of neo-classical economics. In particular, it is assumed that all agents within the political sphere act out of a narrow self-interest, maximizing their own individual welfare through rational choice. For example, politicians enact only those policies that ensure their re-election, voters remain deliberately ignorant because of the disproportionate costs of learning about election issues, and bureaucrats do whatever is necessary to please their superiors in order to gain promotion.

Within public choice theory a number of core theoretical concerns are recognizable. First, there are the problems attending aggregating individual choices in maximizing some social welfare function; that is, the difficulties of deriving consistent policy goals by examining the individual preferences of constituents. Second, there is a range of issues that stem from the introduction of public goods and market failure. Specifically, because of its monopoly power, government tends to extend public ownership and administration beyond that warranted by market efficiency. Third, there is the issue of party competition. With two vote-maximizing parties, the equilibrium result is of two parties that are virtually identical; only with three parties is policy variability introduced (cf. Hotelling model). Fourth, there is the difficulty of organizing interest groups because of the free rider problem (see game theory). Finally, a number of complexities are entailed by treating public finance as a rational exchange among citizens.

Public choice models have been widely tested empirically (Mueller, 1979). They show that the government rarely maximizes general social welfare, but is much more concerned with its own particular welfare. As a branch of neo-classical economics, public choice theory is subject to all the standard objections raised against that school. Specifically, its supposition of rational choice has been severely criticized. Within geography Cox and Johnston (1982) explore the issue of public goods and market failure, and Bennett (1980) the topic of public finance. (TJB)

References Arrow, K.K 1951: Social choice and individual values. New York: John Wiley. Bennett, R.J. 1980: The geography of public finance. London: Methuen. Black, D. 1958: The theory of committees and elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cox, K. and Johnston, R.J., eds, 1982: Conflict, politics and the urban scene. New York: St. Martins Press. Mueller, D.C. 1979: Public choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading Archer, J.C. 1981: Public choice paradigms in political geography. In A.D. Burnett and P.J. Taylor, eds, Political studies from spatial perspectives. New York: John Wiley, 73-90. Mueller (1979).



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