… is from page 16 of my late colleague Gordon Tullock’s 1987 essay “Public Choice,” the original of which appeared in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, and is reprinted in Virginia Political Economy, which is Vol. 1 of The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed., 2004):
We do not expect businessmen to devote a great deal of time and attention to maximizing the public interest. We assume that, although they will of course make some sacrifices to help the poor and advance the public welfare, basically they are concerned with benefiting themselves. Traditionally economists did not take the same attitude towards government officials, but Public Choice theory does. To simplify the matter, the voter is thought of as a consumer and the politician as a businessman/entrepreneur. The bureaucracy of General Motors is thought to be attempting to design and sell reasonably good cars because that is how promotions and pay rises are secured. Similarly, we assume that the government bureaucracy will be attempting mainly to produce policies which in the view of their superiors are good because that is how their promotions and pay rises are secured.
DBx: One may legitimately quibble with the specifics of the behavioral assumptions made by economists and by public-choice scholars; indeed, one may reject these assumptions wholesale and altogether. Regardless, what one may not do if one wishes to maintain his or her legitimacy as a scholar or as a serious thinker is simply to assume that individuals in the government sector are motivated differently than are individuals in the non-government sector. Nor may one assume that individuals in the government sector are generally more intelligent than are individuals in the non-government sector, or that individuals in the government sector have access to more and better information than do individuals in the non-government sector and that individuals in the government sector are better able, and with less bias, to process information than are people in the non-government sector.
Note also that when an economist talks about the motivations of, for example, a business person, that economist should be understood to be talking about a typical person operating in his or her capacity as a business owner or manager. The particulars of whatever motivational assumptions the economist makes about the business person are not meant necessarily to describe also those of a business owner or manager in that person’s capacity as father, wife, neighbor, friend, or fellow club member.
Finally, and for the record, to make assumptions about the motivations of individuals in any of their various roles in life is not thereby to express normative approval of those motivations. Likewise, to challenge the descriptive accuracy or the analytical usefulness of some assumed behavioral motivations is not thereby to express normative disapproval of those motivations.