Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

The Public Choice Society at 50 Years

March 8th, 2013 by Edward Lopez

In April, 1963, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock organized an interdisciplinary conference of scholars from economics, political science, sociology, and law. Their topic — which leveraged the success of Buchanan’s and Tullock’s 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent — was the rational analysis of politics. A second conference followed the next year, and the proceedings were printed in an edited volume. A third conference followed. And soon the nascent group of odd-ball scholars were gaining increasing momentum. Out of this, the Public Choice Society emerged.

Since then, an annual conference has been held every March for the last half century. And today begins the 50th anniversary PCS conference in New Orleans.

The 50th’s conference program may be of interest to PE readers. Its highlights are the  four plenary sessions, each  devoted to a main tributary in public choice thought: Virginia Political Economy, the Bloomington (Ostrom) School, Experimental Economics, and Social Choice Theory. Each plenary session is populated by eminent and emerging scholars who will explore the heritage and the ongoing vitality of these respective strands.

Wayne and I are excited to be on the program as well. We’ll participate in a session where Professors Peter Boettke, John Levendis, and Michael Thomas will comment on  Madmen alongside Larry White’s The Clash of Economic Ideas. Public choice, of course, is central to the story that Wayne and I tell in Madmen, so we’re delighted that Art Carden organized this session.

The program will also feature special tributes in honor of PCS past presidents Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), Vincent Ostrom (1919-2012), and James Buchanan (1919-2013). The tribute to Buchanan will include this short video on his life and work, “Daring to be Different.”

Public choice is more relevant in today’s world than ever, both as a discipline and as the Society of scholars. This weekend, this group of scholars will commemorate the Society’s origins, which emerged through the intellectual entrepreneurship of James Buchanan and his fellow travelers. As Buchanan recounted in 2003:

Our book [The Calculus of Consent] was well-received by both economists and political scientists. And, through the decades since its publication, the book has achieved status as a seminal work in the research program. The initial interest in the book, and its arguments, prompted Tullock and me, who were then at the University of Virginia, to initiate and organize a small research conference in Charlottesville in April 1963. We brought together economists, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars from other disciplines, all of whom were engaged in research outside the boundaries of their disciplines. The discussion was sufficiently stimulating to motivate the formation of a continuing organization, which we first called the Committee on Non-Market Decision-Making, and to initiate plans for a journal initially called Papers on Non-Market Decision-Making, which Tullock agreed to edit.

We were all unhappy with these awkward labels, but after several annual meetings there emerged the new name “public choice,” for both the organization and the journal. In this way the Public Choice Society and the journal Public Choice came into being. Both have proved to be quite successful as institutional embodiments of the research program, and sister organizations and journals have since been set up in Europe and Asia.

Onward and upward…

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Buy the Book
From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

©2018 Wayne A Leighton & Edward López • Web Design by Barrel Strength