December 9, 2015

The Origins of Public Choice and Virginia Political Economy

What Might Arthur Lovejoy Have Thought?
  • Richard Wagner

    Distinguished Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics
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Find the paper at SSRN

Drawing inspiration from Ross Emmett’s (2006) imaginative construction of what Frank Knight might have thought about the Stigler-Becker formulation of Die Gustibus, I ask what Arthur Lovejoy (1936) might have thought about the origin of public choice. He would surely have denied that public choice denoted a “unit idea.” Public choice is a generic term, like Enlightenment, Romanticism, and similar terms that cover many different and often inconsistent ideas. In its generic form, public choice descends from the neoclassical focus on rational action applied to voting. While the scholars associated with Virginia political economy likewise displayed an interest in rationality and voting, their core ideas descended from the confluence between the classical tradition of political economy and the Italian tradition of public finance. The significance of origins resides in the orientation it provides for future scholarship. An analytical core drawn from a neoclassical theory of rationality and voting based on demonstrative reasoning reflects a different analytical vision than does a classical theory of creative action and societal organization based on plausible reasoning. This latter location of origin points toward an integrated treatment of the economic, political, and social aspects of the perennial problem of people living together in close geographical proximity where cooperation and antagonism are both always in play.