Front Page Titles (by Subject) Liberty, Rational Choice & Public Affairs - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Liberty, Rational Choice & Public Affairs - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Liberty, Rational Choice & Public Affairs
“Rational Choice and Public Affairs.” Theory and Decision (Dec. 1980):229-258.
Rational choice in the area of public affairs is an ancient topic, going back at least as far as Plato's Republic. This field concerns the problem of how we may evaluate the actions taken by political representatives or by others whose work is intended to secure the community's best interests. Prof. Machan argues for the genuine possibility of arriving at a rational determination of public policy.
Prof. Machan first defines the chief concepts involved by sifting through the numerous connotations attached to the terms “rational” and “choice”, and arriving at a contextualist view of these notions. For him, rational choice connotes the “initiation of a course of conduct or selection from alternatives or both in accordance with a common standard appropriate to the context.”
Next, Machan proceeds to specify requirements which must be met by a public choice theory. A bona fide theoretical framework, he asserts, would require an understanding of what public affairs are—a move, in other words, into the field of political theory. Some years ago, Leo Strauss argued for the necessity of such an inquiry in the modern era. The “social ideal” (or public interest), he stated, serves as the guiding standard for distinguishing the political from the nonpolitical areas of human concern. The notion of the public interest encompasses all the traditional concerns of political life: the national purpose, the common good, justice, etc.
According to Machan, the difficulties encountered in defining the public interest may be attributed to efforts at imposing on the study of community a model of research appropriate to other fields, such as physics, biology, and even economics. At times, the lure of mysticism has been powerful enough to convince some thinkers that human affairs will defy all attempts at merely rational understanding.
Machan's own approach is fusionist—a combination of both scientific and humanistic methods—but it is nonhistoricist and consistent with the secular neo-Aristotelianism which he has outlined in previous papers. His rational public-choice theory would logically pre-suppose a rational private-choice theory, which does not separate individual goals from the public good. Thus, ethics become crucial to analysis of public policy. The classical egoism which Machan espouses prescribes that all men and women pursue their success or happiness as human beings. The fulfillment of this imperative requires liberty, a condition which is best safeguarded in community life. From Machan's ethical viewpoint, liberty is the necessary condition in society for the pursuit of the moral life.
Since the goal of public policy is to protect individual liberty from incursions by others, the natural rights of human beings are precisely those that secure this liberty. These include rights to life, voluntary action, and property, with the right to life at the basis of all others. The standard for judging the validity of public policy will thus turn on the question of whether a particular measure defends and fosters this basic right and its derivatives or whether it wanders outside this legitimate purview.
The thorny process of distinguishing between rational from illegitimate programs must occur within the context of actual public affairs of the particular society. Not taking stock of the context would inevitably call forth the dogmatic judgments of “pure reason.” A properly contextual evaluation of public policies would require all the scientific, technical, market, legal, and moral information relevant to the task. In its essentials, the process would not differ from that of judging the rationality of personal conduct. Guided by the basic principles outlined by Prof. Machan, the evaluation of public affairs would enjoy the needed fixedness of rational judgment as well as the dynamism of a world in which both our knowledge and reality itself are subject to change.