Liberty Matters

Did Bastiat Anticipate Public Choice?

I wanted to take up the question raised by David Hart in his response essay. This is the question about whether Bastiat was an ur-text of Public Choice.
It seems clear that Bastiat clearly intuited at least the core assumptions of Public Choice, which are:
  1. All individuals are largely similar, in terms of their goals and motivations. Consumers do not become angels when they enter the voting booth, and leaders do not become benevolent geniuses when they enter the legislature or the executive palace.
  2. Government, properly conceived, is based on exchange, or capturing the gains of cooperation. The reason government is necessary, and perhaps even valuable, is that people are different and disagree. By allowing people to benefit by exchange, moderated by institutions that limit the scope of government, some kind of collective governance can be a Pareto improvement over autarky.
  3. There is a tendency, however, for governments to sell, and for private agents to pursue, rents that both distort incentives and divert the attention of public and private actors.
There are clearly elements of all three of these core assumptions in several parts of Bastiat's corpus of work. While he did not fully work out the conclusions, he clearly understood both #1 and #3 at a deep level.