Politics Without Romance – Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

Contributing to our 2020 IHS Summer Seminar series on the classical liberal tradition, Dr. Bobbi Herzberg shared the history and lessons of public choice theory.

Dr. Herzberg is a distinguished fellow for the F. A. Hayek Program in Advanced Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

James Buchanan referred to public choice as “politics without romance,” and Dr. Herzberg explains why. Public choice challenges the false hope that motivations in politics are purer or more noble than in everyday life. Politicians and bureaucrats are humans too.

Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

In the 1960s, the public choice movement emerged in response to the widespread idea that market failure requires government intervention. Dr. Herzberg explains that public choice theory recognizes that flawed human beings influence both the economy and the government and applies tools of economics to social decision-making. “So if they are flawed in their business practices, they will likely be equally flawed when they are making decisions in the public arena,” Dr. Herzberg says. The systems of politics, economics, and social arrangements are entangled and complicated by self-interest and corruption.

It would be nice if people recognized how challenging it is to actually put in place policies to serve the public interest—that truly serve the public interest. It’s much more challenging because even knowing what that public interest is can be so difficult—and that’s what I think public choice frequently tells us.

-Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

Dr. Herzberg then moves on to share the insights she hopes the public will gain from public choice.

The first takeaway Dr. Herzberg shares is the idea of the seen and the unseen. Politicians will always bias in favor of the seen, she claims. For example, unseen consequences of COVID-19 responses have included suicide, depression, anxiety, and domestic abuse. We cannot make the best decisions without considering the unintended consequences. Dr. Herzberg points out that politicians make uninformed decisions with their interests, but not the whole picture, in mind.

The second idea Dr. Herzberg wants us to understand is that methodological individualism does not imply isolated individualism. Thirdly and similarly, self-interest does not imply selfishness.

Fourth on her list is the idea that incentives matter. We need to recognize the full range of incentives that drive politicians, Dr. Herzberg says.

I think if they take away nothing else from public choice, they need to understand that whether we want them to or not, people will respond to incentives. And if you design an institution in one way and you presume that politicians are only acting as angels and you design an institution based on angels, then those personalities will matter—because you’ve now designed your institution not to take into account the full range of incentives and interests that can be out there.

-Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

Dr. Herzberg’s fifth takeaway for us is that models are simplifications. Life is complex, and even simplified problems are complicated.

The sixth idea on her list is that institutions emerge out of social interactions. As we try to simplify and organize things, those approaches evolve over time through trial and error and become institutionalized.

Finally, the seventh takeaway is that one person’s notion of public interest is not the public interest. There is no single public interest, Dr. Herzberg reminds us, but there are different public interests that benefit different people under different conditions. Public choice thinking recognizes that the public is not a single entity and that we need to take assumptions into account.

We should always keep in mind that whatever we’ve modeled, it’s still a simplification of that reality—and it means that we need to always be sensitive to what we have not modeled in it and the assumptions we have made and keep ourselves cautious about how we overinterpret those models.

-Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

Public choice faces additional challenges because it sounds pessimistic, which makes it less attractive than the promises of politicians. Dr. Herzberg says that to have a positive impact in the public arena, public choice advocates should acknowledge when some action needs to be taken and can help develop nuanced solutions.

It is difficult to hold certain people accountable for policies. Dr. Herzberg says that is why we tend to hold a central figure, like the president, accountable. “The challenge is,” Dr. Herzberg says, “when we make decisions in the social arena, it’s very hard to hold particular people responsible for those.”

Public choice is very much about looking at behaviors as an indicator of true preference over just simple statements that people make.

-Dr. Bobbi Herzberg

Dr. Herzberg suggests that if we focus on the institutional design rather than the personalities of politicians, we would perhaps see more accountability and responsibility. We also have to acknowledge interest and the role it plays in public choice, Dr. Herzberg says.

You can watch the rest of this lecture and other IHS Summer Seminar recordings on our YouTube channel. For more information on Summer Seminars, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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