What a Bureaucrat's Really Like


Public Choice, by Dennis C. Mueller, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 310 pp., $35.50, $7.95 paper.

"But above all, the courthouse: The center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon." That is how William Faulkner describes the satisfaction with which the pioneers in his story The Courthouse view the building, the seat of their government, which they have built with their own hands. Its calm Georgian architecture represents the government they have established, which stands for the public interest and not private interest; it is aloof, above it all.

On the face of it, their attitude does not quite make sense. As Faulkner makes very clear, this building and this State are both something they have made with their own hands. Indeed, being democrats, they believe they are the State. Do they seek the public interest more than their own? Are they above it all?

As fanciful as it might sound, the idea that the State is somehow not of this earth is a very important theme in Western political philosophy. Plato imagined a State run by kings who are also "philosophers"—that is, by people who do not see from the limited, selfish perspective of ordinary mortals but understand the human world as a whole and do everything for the good of the whole. He was describing an ideal system, of course, but, as Nietzsche later said, he was also trying to say what the State really is, behind "the barbarically distorted shell" that it shows to the world. He thought that we only understand the State when we understand what the perfect State would be like: in its perfected form, the State would not be human at all; it would be divine. This is also the point of Rousseau's doctrine of the General Will: in a State that is truly a State, and not a mere war of pressure groups, human beings would be motivated, not by private interest, but only by what is good for everyone.

Surely, most of us suspect nowadays that the idea of the State's divinity is mere foolishness, that behind the shell of waste and greed and power seeking we read about in the newspapers there is mostly more waste and greed and power seeking; that the State does not have a conceivable perfected form; that it is at best a necessary evil. In spite of this lurking suspicion, though, we sometimes act as though this idea were true.

Notice, for instance, that most disputes about whether the State ought to intervene in the market simply take the form of discussing whether or not we have a genuine case of "market failure" on our hands. It is as though two doctors were to dispute whether to cut out Uncle Julius's pancreas simply by arguing about whether he is ill.

Even when someone points out that State intervention sometimes has unexpected and undesirable consequences, the point is almost always made as if, when the legislature tells a bureau to regulate the economy in a certain way, the bureaucrats will do exactly that and nothing else. Perhaps what they are supposed to do, as part of their jobs, is wrong, but they will do what they are supposed to do; they have no reason to do anything else. This means that they are not human beings as we know them. Human beings always have some reason to do what they are not supposed to do.

This preposterous assumption is not anybody's fault; it reflects the present state of human knowledge: after thousands of years, our thinking about politics is still surprisingly primitive. Although scientists have discussed the habits of the housefly and the luna moth so thoroughly that natural history is scarcely pursued as a science any longer, we have been given, at least until very recently, amazingly little in the way of plausible theories about the legislator, the bureaucrat, or the voter. Yet those who have glanced at what theories we do have know that such fauna are far more interesting than Musca domestica or Actias luna. It is high time that this gap in our knowledge be filled up.

As a matter of fact, Dennis Mueller's book gives some cause for hope that the gap will become narrower in the years to come. It is a survey of "public choice," an academic discipline that is relatively new and growing at a staggering rate. Of the more than 2,000 books and articles listed in Mueller's bibliography, virtually all have been written during the last 20 years.

Public choice, to put it as simply as possible, is what you get when you apply the methods of economics to the gaudy drama of politics. A public choice theorist applies to politicians and voters the same assumptions economists usually apply to businessmen and consumers: mainly, that they all seek to realize some goal or other while sacrificing as little as possible of the other things they value. They maximize "utility" and minimize "costs."

The result of this approach so far has been a fascinating profusion of theories and, while a fair number of them are incompatible with one another, a great many do seem to express a common theme. That theme is that Plato and Rousseau were wrong or, to put it another way, the sorts of arguments that economists have made to show that free markets have a marked tendency to do the right thing cannot be made out for any known political process. Very often, the reason for this is that the goals that political animals maximize are—how shall I say this?—not very closely related to the public interest.

Take the bureaucrat, for instance. Unlike the businessman, he does not seek to maximize profits, since bureaus do not make profits. But surely he does seek something. According to William Niskanen's theory of bureaucracy—the most influential one in the literature—the goals are, for the most part, "salary, perquisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage," and "output of the bureau." Mueller notes Niskanen's point that all of these goals increase when the bureau's budget goes up and decrease when it goes down. That is, the bureaucrat, unlike the businessman, has a powerful motive for spending more and more.

Much of the work that has been done in public choice is more or less as disillusioning as Niskanen's. The studies on the prospects for controlling the growth of government, for instance, do not inspire much optimism. The theories of voter behavior under direct democracy (chap. 3) are sometimes hair-raising. On the whole, they give the impression that few of us have a low enough opinion of the decency and good sense of homo politicus.

For someone with an advanced knowledge of economics, Mueller's book can serve as an excellent guide to the public choice literature. For most people, though, it is likely to be largely unintelligible. It contains none of the oversimplifying that is normally found in surveys, and the layman will be understandably horrified by the lines of algebra that crawl across its pages like centipedes. He will sometimes find the primary source far easier to understand. This includes the opening chapters of Niskanen's Bureaucracy and Representative Government and even Buchanan and Tullock's classic The Calculus of Consent. One way or another, though, everyone who thinks about government should hear something of what these people have to say.

Lester Hunt teaches philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and recently participated in a summer-long study program at the Center for the Study of Public Choice at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.