29 June 2011
Public Choice Theory and Lords Reform
While preparing my partial study, Reform of the Senate of Canada: A Progressive Conservative Perspective, it struck me how amenable public choice theory is for Anglo-Canadian proponents of appointed upper chambers. This appeared to be an unexplored avenue well-worth following up, and the result is House of Lords reform: lessons from public choice theory.
Public choice — the application of economics to politics — has two main principles:
First, it argues that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, whether in our private or public personas. An elected upper chamber, therefore, will not automatically be more selflessly devoted to the commonweal than an appointed chamber — indeed, on this point, who can fault the existing body? — and, given the incentives to solicit votes by offering electoral inducements, may be an even worse example of institutional democracy.
Second, in acknowledging the fact that markets are imperfect, public choice teaches that the answer is not necessarily to be found in the State: that ‘government failure’ is a more intractable problem than its market counterpart. Elected upper chambers, therefore, are no panacea for what ails us politically. In fact, they are probably a far worse option than the appointed chambers in the Westminster parliamentary tradition, especially for those who favour limited government and fear ever-more State intrusion into personal liberty.
(It puzzles me why libertarians disproportionately advocate for an elected upper chamber, unless, as anarcho-capitalists, they mischievously wish to undermine the political process through a ‘scorched-earth-policy’ approach, where the legislative work in both lower and upper houses grinds to a halt through deadlock.
Significant, too, is the tension between utilitarian, majoritarian democracy versus deontological questions of natural rights, to which more government will contribute and which libertarians — theoretically at least — should oppose in the name of freedom.)
I apply these public choice principles to the composition of the House of Lords, in my blog column for the British think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs. My thanks to Richard Wellings and Philip Booth for their assistance. An in-depth analysis will be published in Economic Affairs this autumn.
Click here for my full argument.