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Alternative Traditions in Public Choice

A Macroeconomic View of Public Choice: New Political Macroeconomics as a Separate Tradition of Public Choice

Une perspective macroéconomique du choix public : la nouvelle macroéconomique politique comme tradition séparée du choix public
Rafael Galvão de Almeida
p. 77-105


La théorie du choix public est répertoriée sous microéconomie dans le code JEL. Elle est largement considérée comme une question de microéconomie, au même titre que les micro-économistes qui chevauchent la frontière entre économie et science politique. Cependant, à partir des années 1970, un nombre croissant de macroéconomistes effectue des recherches sur des sujets liés aux modèles macroéconomiques inspirés des choix publics, et quelques spécialistes des choix publics ont discuté des questions macroéconomiques dans le cadre des choix publics. La différence est que le premier groupe a tenté de se séparer de l'étiquette de « choix public », en adoptant toutes d’autres étiquettes alternatives (telles que macroéconomie politique, économie politique, nouvelle économie politique, entre autres). Pour qualifier ces derniers, j’utilise le terme « nouvelle macroéconomie politique » comme étiquette générale de cette tradition. Cette pluralité de termes a créé des conflits avec d’autres traditions du choix public, en particulier celle de Virginie. Ceux-ci affirment que cette tentative de « séparation » du choix public est préjudiciable à tout le champ de l'analyse économique de la politique. Cet article cherche à comprendre la formation de la nouvelle macroéconomie politique, comment elle est devenue sa propre tradition de choix public et pourquoi elle voudrait se séparer de l'étiquette de « théorie du choix public ». Les raisons, comme cet article le détaillera, sont principalement liées à l’adoption par les macroéconomistes politiques du paradigme de la macroéconomie, et leur tentative de se distancier de l’association idéologique avec le libertarisme présent dans certaines traditions de choix public. Cette discussion indique comment les différences de langage et de valeurs peuvent avoir un impact sur la façon dont les économistes voient leur sujet d’étude : même si les théoriciens des choix publics et les macroéconomistes politiques étudient des sujets similaires, ils en ont une compréhension différente.

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Do Blankart and Koester classify anybody who was writing on the interaction between economics and politics before the mid-1980s as a member of the public choice school? (Alesina et al., 2006, 203)

Trying to separate the two research fields or to assess the superiority of one over the other is a futile enterprise. (Padovano, 2004, 418)

  • 1 Since the objective of this edition of Œconomia is to study other traditions of public choice than (...)
  • 2 D7’s subdivisions are D70 (general), D71 (social choice, clubs, committees and associations), D72 ( (...)

1Public choice is a microeconomic affair. Its rubric in the JEL code is “D7—Analysis of Collective Decision-Making,” with the code D being reserved for Microeconomics. The title was chosen after searching for a term believed to be “rare” and “neutral” enough (Cherrier, 2017, 576).1 It was supposed to have its own rubric, but Roger Noll suggested that it should be placed under Microeconomics in order to cover “social choice theory, the theory of teams, economic models of political processes, bureaucracy, and policy analysis of the ‘Tabellini-Alesina’ type” to encompass, in Noll’s words, “everything published that looks at political aspects of policy or at collective choice processes” (Cherrier and Fleury, 2017, 24, italics in the original).2

2In the 1970s, however, macroeconomists started to study issues of public choice, and public choice scholars have analyzed macroeconomics under the tenets of public choice theory (PCT). This would challenge the strict classification of the field as microeconomics. Two of these sub-disciplinary crossings are worthy of mention in this introduction: the article “Political Business Cycles,” by William Nordhaus (1975), and the book Democracy in Deficit, by James Buchanan and Richard Wagner ([1977] 2000). Parallel to the influence of Lucas’s policy inefficiency proposition, they were “a logical extension of the public choice ‘movement’ dating from the mid-sixties, in macroeconomics” (Keech, 1998, 294).

3What singles out these two works is that they were among the first that studied collective decision-making with a macroeconomic focus. Nordhaus proposed a formal model to explain how business cycles might have origins in political issues; Buchanan and Wagner wrote a critique of the Keynesian policymaking doctrine and to open a dialogue with macroeconomists. They had different objectives, however: Nordhaus elaborated a formal macroeconomic model, while Buchanan and Wagner analyzed macroeconomic policy doctrine from a microeconomic public choice perspective.

  • 3 al-Nowaihi and Garrat (1998) consider the research on political business cycles pre-rational expect (...)
  • 4 Nagatani (1988) has influences from public choice but its main focus is Japanese organization theor (...)
  • 5 These terms might be used to refer to the work of political economists not affiliated with the publ (...)

4The contentions start here. Nordhaus’s model helped to establish a branch of political economy with a macroeconomic focus that can be labelled “(New) Political Macroeconomics” (NPM),3 following Nagatani (1988),4 Garrat (1998), al-Nowaihi and Garrat (1998), Snowdon and Vane (1999; 2006, 517f.), Gärtner (2000) and Cornwall (2002); others label it “political economics” or just “(new) political economy.”5 It uses “the conceptual and analytical tools of economics to examine the interactions of politics and economics in democratic systems, emphasizing the choice of policies as well as how (and how effectively) they influence economic outcomes” (Cornwall, 2002, 546).

5The discipline also has a massive scope. In a partial list, it includes the interaction of economic and political factors in

business cycles, inflation, unemployment, the conduct and implementation of stabilization policies, the relationship between dictatorship, democracy, inequality and economic growth, instability and conflict, the origin of persistent budget deficits, international integration and the size of nations (Snowdon and Vane, 2006, 517).

6NPM scholars differ from their PCT counterparts in terms of method by adopting a general equilibrium approach, in contrast to the partial equilibrium approach typical of most PCT (Padovano, 2004). They have attempted to distance themselves from PCT, claiming to have a different scope (Drazen, 2000), to be an improvement over its flaws (Persson and Tabellini, 2000), or to dispel its libertarian caricature of the Leviathan State (Persson et al., 1998). This is reflected in the perception of their networks, with observations that NPM scholars do not publish in Public Choice or go to the same conferences (Padovano, 2004, 415). They understand that “public choice and political economics are more labels than competing paradigms” (Alesina et al., 2006, 201) and see themselves as taking what PCT started to a macroeconomic level, with better tools, better practices and less ideology.

7Their apparent dismissal of PCT as a secondary concern provoked the reaction of PCT scholars, who claimed that this dismissal is harmful to scientific research itself (Havrilesky, 1994; Padovano, 2004; Blankart and Koester, 2006), failed to defend the ideals of liberty inherent to PCT (Blankart and Koester, 2007), and served political correctness (Mueller, 2015).

  • 6 There are other examples of this happening in economics. Mróz (2019, 245-247) contrasted the Austri (...)

8In spite of it, some NPM scholars recognize that the tradition is “in many respects indistinguishable from public choice,” differing subtly in the object of study (Sayer, 2000, 514-515).6 In order to understand this issue, this article has two objectives: to situate NPM as a separate tradition of public choice and to understand why they would rather be seen as macroeconomists instead. One reason why this happens might be due to fundamental differences in language used by the two groups.

  • 7 The term might be oxymoronic because public choice is usually seen as incompatible with Keynesian e (...)

9This article has four sections, besides this introduction. Section 1 studies Buchanan and Wagner ([1977] 2000) as one of the most important direct engagements with macroeconomics, from a Virginian perspective, and how this helped to shape the perception of how PCT studied macroeconomics, and how different they were. Section 2 studies how the political business cycle model started a discussion of macroeconomic analysis with a public choice focus, being formalized by scholars alien to the PCT networks, and giving rise to a “Keynesianesque” tradition of public choice.7 Section 3 tries to understand in more detail the divergences between PCT and NPM, how important it is for the NPM identity to separate themselves from PCT, and how important it is for the PCT identity to deny that this separation exists; it is argued that method and values/ideology are important factors in this separation and it might create a debate on the value free/value laden nature of political economy itself. The article concludes attempting to understand to where NPM and PCT are headed and how their problem might be one of scientific language. NPM and PCT, in spite of overlapping, have not managed to find a unified language. This difference gives them different objectives, methods and even values.

1. Macroeconomics as Seen by Public Choice: The Perception of a Democracy in Deficit

  • 8 North’s review focused on how unoriginal the book was to be worthy of a grant, not mentioning anyth (...)

10The focus of this section is on how earlier works shaped academic perceptions of how PCT approached macroeconomics. The pioneers of PCT did not concentrate their attention on macroeconomic issues, due to their focus on collective decision-making. Mancur Olson, for example, was supposed to write a book titled Regulation, Deregulation and Macroeconomics, but a negative review from Douglass North stopped it from receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation (North, 1985), leading to its shelving.8 An important exception is Democracy in Deficit (Buchanan and Wagner, [1977] 2000, henceforth DiD), which played an important role shaping economists’ perception of how PCT scholars approach macroeconomics.

11Although DiD may not be the most important of Buchanan’s works and neither is the objective of this article to situate it in his oeuvre, it aimed at an audience wider than fellow PCT scholars, including macroeconomists, thus establishing its importance as a channel of communication with the latter. According to Wagner (2017), the ideas presented in the book were in development since the 1950s, with Buchanan’s writings on government deficits. It also borrows from Henry Simons’s writings on public debt, whom Buchanan can be considered as his “intellectual heir,” for considering “public debt fundamentally as a problem of democratic decision-making” (Johnson, 2018, 955).

12In the foreword to the 2000’s edition, Robert Tollison argued the book “led the way in economics in endogeinizing the role of government in discussions of macroeconomic theory and policy;” Buchanan himself wrote that “the argument is perhaps the single most persuasive application of the elementary theory of public choice” (DiD, xi, xv).

13The book is an analysis of “the political institutions through which economic policy must be implemented” (DiD, 4) and of the consequences of the application of Keynes and his successors’ economic policies for the American economy. Just like the serpent who introduced sin in the Eden, Keynes is framed as an outsider to American political economy, who replaced the “old-time fiscal religion”—an informal doctrine in which the states had a compromise of not spending more than they collected in taxes and curbing the growth of the public sector—for a looser fiscal/monetary policy that was supposedly used to fight the Great Depression. Keynesianism captivated the “academic scribblers, in this case the economists,” and secured “a permanent shift in the policies of governments” (DiD, 25). As one commenter observed, they present “Keynesian Economics, if not perhaps the Economics of Keynes, as a doctrine of public debt” (Gordon, 1978, 583), while other argued that it “certainly has a clear agenda of arguing that inflationary policy was an essential aspect of Keynesianism” (Forder, 2014, 160).

  • 9 Roy Harrod, Keynes’s first biographer, coined the term “presuppositions of Harvey Road” as a refere (...)

14Keynesianism followed the “presuppositions of the Harvey Road.”9 It had the belief that economic policy should be guided by a small group of enlightened and wise people, through a national planning board, therefore exogenous to their models. It failed to see politicians as self-interested individuals, just as any other economic agent (DiD, 80). This led to three negative economic consequences: permanent budget deficits, inflation, and overgrowth of the public sector (ibid., 71). Not only that, they also attributed to “the abject failure of the Keynesian economic forecasters in the immediate postwar years” (ibid., 40) a hand in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s,

evidenced by what appears as a generalized erosion in public and private manners, increasingly liberalized attitudes toward sexual activities, a declining vitality of the Puritan work ethic, deterioration in product quality, explosion of the welfare rolls, widespread corruption in both the private and the governmental sector, and, finally, observed increases in the alienation of voters from the political process. (ibid., 66-67).

  • 10 Values, both economic and moral, are a concern of the authors: “At this point, values cannot be lef (...)

15Therefore, Keynesian economics would be incompatible with a democratic society, because it requires a command economy, with little regard to economic and personal freedoms. The Keynesian legacy was institutions that created an underperforming economy, with worse values than before10 (DiD, 131). Its lack of concern about the political economy burdened future generations with lesser economic development.

  • 11 The last chapter of the book incorporates material from a congressional hearing on budget balancing (...)

16In order to combat these problems, Buchanan and Wagner advocated a return to the old-time fiscal religion, with an independent monetary authority insulated from political pressures. Constitutional rules should guide economic policy, along with accountability mechanisms, such as public hearings (DiD, 187-189).11

  • 12 2463, as of August 2020, according to Google Scholar.

17DiD produced mixed reactions. It is still considered an important book for the tradition (Wagner, 2017), and has amassed an impressive number of citations.12 Its intention was to polemicize; the authors knew it “would arouse antagonism from many camps” (Buchanan and Wagner, 1978, 627). It may have done little to influence mainstream economists, however, if we take the symposium organized by the Journal of Monetary Economics as a sample of their reactions.

18The book was criticized for many reasons, both technical and non-technical: confusing nominal with real debt, ignorance of the Ricardian equivalence, and rational expectations (Barro, 1978), lack of empirical evidence and formal modelling (Niskanen, 1978; Tobin, 1978, 618), not recognizing that their target was the Keynesian doctrine of sticky wages (Gordon, 1978, 587), logical inconsistencies that come from “hardboiled sentimentalism” in their view of the old-time fiscal religion in the United States untainted by Keynesianism (Roberts, 1978, 605).

19Tobin offered the harshest criticism, accusing the book of impoverishing economic research because of the authors’ aggressive ideological stance:

  • 13 Tobin was among the few economists who were mentioned by name in DiD (82). He was accused of failin (...)

Controversy and reasoned debate are part of [the struggle of economists to find the truth]. Labelling schools is not. The BW book is one more symptom of the increasing doctrinal and, yes, ideological polarization of the economics profession in recent years. It is a shame, and it should stop. (Tobin, 1978, 618).13

20The question of whether DiD made any contribution to macroeconomics was raised by Barro, who claimed that the authors “seem to be suggesting the substitution of a political theory of aggregate policy that omits serious consideration of macroeconomic theory” (Barro, 1978, 579-580). In their reply, the authors explained that their aim was not to make a direct contribution to macroeconomics, but rather to treat “seriously the straightforward observation that politicians, not economists, make economic policy.” (Buchanan and Wagner, 1978, 635).

  • 14 There is controversy on whether Buchanan and Wagner’s portrayal of Keynes’s economics is accurate ( (...)

21In other words, the book was an analysis of macroeconomic doctrines through a Virginian framework, not a contribution to macroeconomics per se; it used different language from what macroeconomists expected. As Subrick (2007, 739) wrote, DiD was an exposé of the fiscal malpractices derived from Keynes’s policy recommendations.14 Therefore, its intention was not to establish a distinctive tradition of macroeconomic analysis, but to apply the Virginian approach to current events from a public choice point of view.

22Nevertheless, DiD contributed to the rules vs. discretion debate. Just as new classical theory, Buchanan (and presumably the rest of Virginian PCT) believed that a market economy was inherently stable (DiD, 192; Buchanan and Wagner, 1978, 635); he defended actions such as the constitutionalization of money to protect the market order from political interests (Buchanan, 2010). The book’s staunch defense of constitutional limits to public spending would be used by other economists as a political argument for rules (e.g. Lucas, 1980, 209).

23While DiD was important for Buchanan to reaffirm economics as a public science and to argue that politicians are self-interested rather than neutral (Angeli, 2019, 63), it was inserted into a context of attrition between libertarian and reformist economists (Romani, 2018). Therefore, the perception of PCT as a libertarian endeavor became stronger. Its lack of formal modelling, the main language of macroeconomics, may have been a greater obstacle to a further penetration in the mainstream of economics.

24In the end, it can be said the book has been somewhat successful because “little, if anything remains of ‘the presuppositions of Harvey Road’” (Waterman, 2002, 41) and current economic policy approaches have incorporated issues raised by public choice into its contents (e.g. Tanzi, 2011; Acocella et al., 2016). Interestingly, DiD made no reference to another contemporary approach that combined macroeconomics with public choice: the political business cycle literature.

2. Political Business Cycles and New Political Macroeconomics: A Keynesian Public Choice?

  • 15 Kalecki (1943) introduced the term “political business cycle” in the literature. Nordhaus considere (...)

25The political business cycle (PBC) model introduced issues of political economy into macroeconomic modelling, arguably serving as the paradigm of NPM. The first formal PBC model was proposed in Nordhaus (1975), followed by Lindbeck (1976) and MacRae (1977). Picking an insight from Kalecki (1943),15 Nordhaus argued that, when elections approach, the incumbent government manipulates the economy in order to ensure reelection. It adopts looser economic policies to transfer income to the voters. With more income available, voters will tend to consider the incumbent government is doing a good economic job and will tend to re-elect it for another term.

26The cost to this policy, however, is the ensuing inflation that comes with the fiscal/monetary expansion, which later negates the increase in income. Thus, in order to fight inflation, the newly elected government enacts austerity policies. The austerity continues until the elections approach once again. The government returns to looser fiscal/monetary policies to boost popularity, resuming the cycle anew.

27Nordhaus’s priority was to show how political choices mattered to the economy, using a macroeconomic model: the trade-off between inflation and unemployment made possible by an interpretation of the Philips curve, in which the government could induce and tolerate a higher inflation in exchange for lower unemployment. Attempts to manipulate the economy distorted intertemporal choice and threatened long-term economic development.

28The model caused a series of discussions on the feasibility of these cycles. Although it is highly intuitive, it failed to produce definitive proof: “No one could read the [PBC] literature without being struck by the lack of supporting evidence” (Alt and Chrystal, 1983, 125). The idea that voters could be “tricked” by the government went against the tenets of rational expectations: if voters are rational, they would be aware of the fiscal/monetary expansion and prepare accordingly, neutralizing the effect on the income level (McCallum, 1978). This is considered a reason why PBCs were ignored by most mainstream macroeconomists (cf. Alesina, 1988; Snowdon and Vane, 2005, 571). Recent empirical work has failed to find any systematic evidence of fiscal manipulation for reelection purposes (Cazals and Mandon, 2019).

  • 16 The reader can be directed to Franzese and Jusko (2006), Dubois (2016) and Cazals and Mandon (2019) (...)

29Nevertheless, the PBC models did not become extinct, on the contrary—Nordhaus’s model gave way to derivative models, such as Douglas Hibbs’s partisan model (Hibbs, 1977). Other authors also adapted rational expectations to it. Its most recent incarnation is called “conditional political business cycles,” which conditions PBCs to the quality of electoral institutions (Franzese and Jusko, 2006). Nordhaus’s original model became a “thought experiment” to guide future research (Gärtner, 1994, 86).16

  • 17 According to Dubois (2016, 238) Nordhaus met Gerald Kramer at the Cowles Commission and, along with (...)
  • 18 As a matter of comparison, other PBC models show similar citation patterns: MacRae (1977) did not m (...)
  • 19 Bruno Frey, along with Laurence Lau, had developed a public choice model that incorporated the poli (...)

30Although Nordhaus did not use the term ‘public choice,’ preferring the term ‘political choices’ to refer to issues of collective choice within an economic model, he was aware of the PCT literature at the time. Nordhaus (1975) mentioned two important works: Downs (1957) and Kramer (1971).17 He saw them as important to characterize voting choices as a “menu of alternatives, each alternative representing the position of a party or candidate” (Nordhaus, 1975, 172).18 When I asked whether he was aware of other authors (specifically Buchanan, Tullock and Frey), he replied: “Yes to [Buchanan and Tullock], but no on [Frey]19 when I wrote [Nordhaus (1975)]. I didn’t think [Buchanan and Tullock] had interesting ideas on the subject. Ed Tufte and Gerald Kramer were more influential on my thinking. It was an obvious topic after the Nixon period.” (Private communication with William Nordhaus, May 14, 2020).

  • 20 Using information from RePec, we see that Nordhaus is a macroeconomist and environmental economist, (...)

31The PBC models drew interest from public choice scholars, while being discarded by macroeconomists due to bad timing (Gärtner, 2004, 160). In the list of 530 references compiled by Dubois (2016), Public Choice published 60 PBC-related papers as of 2014, the highest number from a single journal. PCT textbooks and encyclopedias have discussions on the topic (Mueller, 2003, 467f.; Shugart and Razzolini, 2001, 427-433; Rowley and Schneider, 2004, vol. 2, 411-415). Thus, it can be considered part of the PCT “canon.” This contrasts with the fact none of the three economists that developed the model were PCT scholars.20

32As mentioned before, the focus of the model was in establishing a macroeconomic rather than a public choice model, even though they did use PCT to inform their analyses. The lack of association of PBC authors with public choice is noticed by Mitchell (1988, 110), who describes one of them, Douglas Hibbs, as being “distinctively unfriendly to public choice.”

33Due to its scope, DiD makes no reference to the PBC literature, neither to validate nor to deny its conclusions. Though, one of its co-authors, Richard Wagner, went on to write about PBCs, a model he called “Keynesianesque” (Eusepi and Wagner, 2016, 20). Wagner (1977, 403) argued the model “hardly conforms to economic experience” and that it ignores the contractual nature of the economy. In what can be considered a preemptive critique of future developments of NPM, Wagner claimed that “macroeconomic consequences may result ex post, but the ex ante impetus for the policy is microeconomic or micropolitical in orientation.” (Wagner, 1977, 407).

34Wagner went on to support the statement that a market economy was inherently stable (DiD, 192) and that distortions come from the attempts of politicians to manipulate the economy for their own benefit (Wagner, 1980, 33). Although he conceded that “the idea of a political business cycle stands this traditional claim [of benevolence of politicians] on its head” (Wagner, 2001, 430), he also argued that “the actions described by the PBC violate ordinary canons of rationality, unless rapid and significant loss of memory is assumed to plague citizens” (Eusepi and Wagner, 2016, 21).

35Inspired by the tenets of Austrian economics, Wagner argued that the idea of a political business cycle is problematic due to the very idea of a “cycle:” it is more of a product to aid modelling than a product of history itself (Wagner, 1994, 427). This extends to the role given to its variables: “most of the variables of macroeconomic theory are consequences of human interaction and not objects of choice. … A rate of growth is not an object of choice. Neither is a rate of unemployment nor is a rate of inflation.” (Wagner, 1999, 139). In other words, the idea that politicians can freely manipulate variables is a contestable feature of macroeconomic models, and ignores the capacity of the economic agents to organize themselves. Thus, PBC authors are committing the same mistakes as mainstream macroeconomists, by implying a range of government action that does not exist in reality, as if the economy was a balloon that could be inflated or deflated by the government (Wagner, 1977, 403).

  • 21 While this might not be very rigorous evidence, checking the citations on Google Scholar of Wagner’ (...)

36Such criticism sounds like a foreign language to mainstream macroeconomists and there is no evidence they are even aware of its existence.21 This shows how differences on how to treat macroeconomic tenets are fundamental to their separation. As mentioned before, PBC models would incorporate the insights from the rational expectations program, in order to make it more appealing to mainstream macroeconomists.

37Rational expectations are not considered part of most public choice traditions. Buchanan and Wagner (1978, 631), for example, “do not accept the thesis that the implications of rationality are the same for both private choice and public choice.” Brennan and Buchanan ([1980] 2000, 140) argued that rational expectations limit the analysis of strategic interactions of the government with its voters. According to Congleton (2001), rational ignorance should be preferred to strict rational expectations. Willet and Keil (2004, 413-414) also argued that PBC models would have been improved if their advocates were aware of rational ignorance, and focused more on microeconomic rather than macroeconomic issues.

38Although a few authors equated political macroeconomics to PBCs, there are topics other than the political origins of business cycles to study in the intersection between public choice and macroeconomics. Some NPM authors consider the Kydland-Prescott model of dynamic inconsistency part of its studies (Gärtner, 1994), claiming that it helped to launch “a new research programme, at the frontier between economics and political science, that seeks to explain observed government behaviour with the standard tools of economics” (Tabellini, 2006, 214). Nevertheless, the idea of “endogenous treatment of policy makers has become a frequently encountered, if not standard, feature of macroeconomic policy analyses” (Gärtner, 2000, 554).

39The new approach, therefore, expanded its scope. Already in earlier textbooks, there are discussions about the macroeconomic consequences of policies and how they are created by self-interested policymakers, coupled with the claim that “the subject of political economics [including NPM] is the economic role of the government” (Alt and Chrystal, 1983, 239). If we take Drazen (2000), Persson and Tabellini (2000), and Snowdon and Vane (2005, 517f.) and judge by their summaries, we see they discuss, besides PBCs, topics on inflation, central bank independence, political regimes and public debt.

  • 22 Even though he did not identify himself with any school of thought (Snowdon and Vane, 2005, 572). W (...)

40This is clear with Alberto Alesina. Some authors consider him to be “the leader of a new school of macroeconomic political economy,” focused on macro instead of microeconomic public choice (Forte, 2012, 417-418, italics added). He began his research on rational partisan PBCs, and then moved on to other topics, such as the size of nations and the division of national responsibilities in an international bloc (Forte, 2012; Hughes Hallet, 2012). Throughout his work, one finds a constant concern with intersecting the fields of political economy and macroeconomics, to the point where he became one of the standard references when someone asks for an example of an NPM scholar.22

41Some authors consider that NPM gave new life to the theory of economic policy. Tanzi (2011, 202), identified “the positive theory of fiscal policy … developed by economists such as Alberto Alesina, Guido Tabellini, Alan Drazen, Torsten Persson, J. von Hagen, and a few others” to be the intellectual successor to the traditional theory of economic policy. “This school,” Tanzi continued

seems to conclude that with better institutions and better institutional arrangements good policies can be pursued and can deliver better results. In other words, the positive theory of fiscal policy does not necessarily invalidate the theory of fiscal policy, but it argues that the latter will be more successful if given institutions are in place. (ibid.)

42This could be considered a way from which the insights of PCT on endogenous politicians found their way into the theory of economic policy. Some authors consider that critiques of “political economy”—presumably including the PCT critique—which “refer to the existence of agency problems in the relationship between politicians and their constituencies,” were of minor importance and were easily incorporated into the discipline. The greatest challenge, in their view, came from the major critiques posited by Arrow’s impossibility theorem and Lucas’s policy inefficiency proposition, instead (Acocella et al., 2016, 7).

43As we will see in the next section, NPM scholars wanted to move away from the ideological load associated with PCT. They perceived their own models as not inherently libertarian or reformist. Nordhaus was counted among the “new economists” of the 1970s, who “sought the middle ground” between libertarians and radicals. Along with Tobin, he developed his research on environmental economics parallel to his work on PBCs, as a reaction to the statement that growth should not be an end in itself (Romani, 2018, 16-17). Forte (2012, 419) wondered whether Alesina might be a Keynesian, right before making the sensationalist claim that Alesina actually “destroys” Keynesianism. On reviewing the impact of central bank independence studies, Alesina wrote that the NPM literature showed that “political competition may generate a deficit bias and accumulation of government debt above the ‘social planner’ optimum” (Alesina, 1988, 44, italics added)—a term that would look odd in a PCT work.

44The issues brought about by PBC models exposed a rift between political economists who identify themselves as public choice theorists and those who do not, within which the political macroeconomists are included. Even if we consider NPM a tradition of public choice, its authors sought to distance themselves from this label. In the next section, we will try to understand why.

3. NPM vs. PCT: A Dispute for Scope, Narrative and Ideology

3.1. Overlapping and Separation

45The question then remains: what makes NPM and PCT different? The conflation of public choice and the Virginia tradition presented in MacLean (2017), which motivated this special issue of Œconomia, is a recurrent phenomenon in the literature—it became a relevant problem because MacLean introduced this issue to a larger, non-academic audience. For example, Besley (2006, 29, italics added) wrote that “in some circles the term ‘public choice’ is used to refer to any analysis that links economics and politics. But here, I am using it more narrowly to represent the work beginning in the Virginia School in the 1950s.”

46From the supporter’s side, in what can be considered the most comprehensive public choice textbook, Mueller (2003, 1) defines it as “the economic study of nonmarket decision making, or simply the application of economics to political science.” In other words, it is a very broad definition, that encompasses different traditions linked through applying rational choice theory to the political economy. In Mueller (2015), he concludes that, if political economists and public choice theorists are doing the same thing, they should belong to the same team. Congleton (2018) includes NPM authors in his survey of PCT literature and digressions on the future of the field.

47Again, it should be reminded that the three main early PBC authors (Nordhaus, MacRae and Lindbeck) were not explicitly affiliated with PCT and its organizations. Not only that, PCT authors have identified PBC models as the work of “Keynesian oriented economists” (Willet and Keil, 2004, 412; Eusepi and Wagner, 2016, 20). Due to PCT’s nature as a critique of the common understanding of economic policy, the label “Keynesian public choice” is controversial to say the least. Even if PBC models were informed by PCT authors and have been researched by them, they also recognize them as something slightly different from what they understand as “usual” public choice. Mueller (2003, 470) recognized that this literature enters in conflict with public choice sometimes.

48The separation of NPM authors, who identify themselves more as macroeconomists than public choice scholars, is also perceived by the latter. Although they share entire fields of interest, “very few political economists participate to meetings of the public choice societies [and] publish in journals such as Public Choice and quite seldom refer to [PCT] contributions” (Padovano, 2004, 415-416).

49The attempt to distance themselves from PCT is evident in the works of NPM scholars. Drazen considers public choice and new political macroeconomics to have different scopes: while NPM is concerned with using “formal and technical tools of modern economic analysis to look at the importance of politics for economics,” PCT “considers not simply the positive and normative aspects of different ways of making collective choices, but also the question of how a society can choose over the set of possible choice mechanisms” (Drazen, 2000, 4, 60). Drazen thus delimits a difference between both approaches and considers public choice essential to support NPM, since it provides microfoundations to political economy—an opinion shared by Gamble (1995, 530).

50A similar reasoning is offered by Persson and Tabellini (2000, 3-4), who see PCT as an earlier tradition in the positive analysis of political economy that serves as a stepping stone for NPM. After observing that initial PCT work “sometimes relied on weaker theoretical or microeconomic foundations,” their own contributions to NPM adopted “the equilibrium approach of the macroeconomic theory of policy” and exploited “the tools of rational choice in analyzing some of the classic problems in public choice.” Persson et al. (1998, 686) criticized the caricature made by PCT of the “malevolent Leviathan policymaker that replaces the benevolent Pigovian planner” of earlier Keynesianism.

51However, many PCT authors criticize NPM for trying to distance themselves from PCT. Mueller dismissed Drazen’s textbook by calling it “an excellent introduction to and overview of the literature, although the book is somewhat mistitled, since it discusses virtually all topics from the public choice literature” (Mueller, 2003, 471). He also observes that themes and authors of public choice and political economy overlap: there were several past presidents of the Public Choice Society among the contributors to The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy, therefore there is no reason for them to be treated as different fields (Mueller, 2015, 386).

  • 23 It might be argued that it resembles the “Marshallian” and “Walrasian” divide in macroeconomics (e. (...)

52In an even more critical view, Havrilesky (1994, 117) argued that this approach to political economy is harmful, due to relying on “particular institutional arrangements” and an incorrect view of the economy. Blankart and Koester (2006) accused NPM authors of ignoring the importance of public choice in the development of the discipline, claiming that public choice had been researching the same issues long before. Padovano (2004, 418) argued that the only relevant difference between PCT and NPM is that the first adopts partial-equilibrium models and the second general-equilibrium models.23 In his conclusion, “trying to separate the two research fields or to assess the superiority of one over the other is a futile enterprise.”

53In their reply to Blankart and Koester, Alesina, Persson and Tabellini ask rhetorically:

  • 24 Mitchell (1988, 116) claimed that scholars such as James Q. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, Edward Banfiel (...)

By their argument, Hibbs, Nordhaus and Lindbeck must be members of the public choice school. Do Blankart and Koester [and Mueller] classify anybody who was writing on the interaction between economics and politics before the mid-1980s as a member of the public choice school?24 (Alesina et al., 2006, 203).

54Considering Mueller’s definition of public choice and his comments on Drazen (2000) and The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy, I dare say the answer seems to be “yes.”

55Given the state of the debate, there is evidence that NPM scholars do not want to be recognized as PCT scholars, which explains their lack of involvement with the other traditions of PCT, besides canonical references. The use of rational expectations and general equilibrium models to analyze issues of collective decision-making and its economic consequences is enough, at least, to classify NPM as its own tradition of public choice. It seems, however, that they want to be recognized as macroeconomists, people “doing” macroeconomics instead of PCT. There is still another issue that makes NPM scholars want to avoid associations with the PCT label: ideology/values.

3.2. Ideology and Political Economy

  • 25 Mueller’s argument can be seen as a fallacy named “some of my best friends” (Plumer, 2011), because (...)

56Mentioning personal communications with Persson, Roland and Tabellini, Mueller complains that other scholars shy away from using the term “public choice” due to association with the “right wing.” He dismisses this attitude as “political correctness,” defending that PCT is also open to “liberals in the American sense,” citing important liberal figures in the movement, such as Elinor Ostrom, Mancur Olson and Anthony Downs (Mueller, 2015, 386).25 Public choice is widespread enough to influence leftist public figures, such as Democrat Party politician Elizabeth Warren (cf. Farrell, 2019), and the scholars associated with the Analytical Marxism movement, which can be seen as a “socialist” public choice theory (Devine, 2005).

57The issue of values and ideology has been a discussion in economics for a long time (e.g. Dupré, 2007; Putnam and Walsh, 2011; Mróz, 2019). The view of the majority of economists is that economics is value-free. Lionel Robbins (1981, 4) wrote that, in opposition to Gunnar Myrdal’s argument that all propositions of economics must involve value judgements, tenets such as prices rising when demand exceeds supply have no “ethical content whatever.” Since public choice shares rational choice theory with mainstream economics, there is no trace of doubt: “Public choice … is a positive science. As such, public choice is—and has to be—value free.” (Boettke and Piano, 2019, 814). Even if there is an apparently disproportionate number of right-leaning researchers among their numbers, these arguments should render the ideological charge void.

58But that is not what happens. On the contrary, the perception of public choice as inherently libertarian has caused many scholars to avoid association with the term. In other words, the statement “public choice is value free,” independent of being true or not, is not credible enough for a good portion of the population, including authoritative scholars. Would MacLean (2017) be as controversial if this was not the case? Would this edition of Œconomia even be necessary? Would NPM spend so much time claiming to be free of ideology?

59A history of public choice would be incomplete without discussing the ideology of some of its founders. Johnson (2018) shows how Buchanan’s critical views towards Keynesianism and planning were influenced from the 1940’s generation of the Chicago School, especially from Henry Simons, who had incisive criticism of planning. From then on, they became a fundamental part of his thought. The trajectory of the Virginia tradition is characterized, by its supporters, as the fight of trailblazers against “the tyranny of intellectual establishment” (Rowley, 2008). The struggle of Virginian public choice in the 1960s is described as a battle against the “red academy,” a Fifth Column composed of Marxist-Leninists, Democrats, the Ford Foundation and other enemies of freedom (Rowley and Houser, 2012, 16). The opposition they suffered from the establishment was important in building their identity (e.g. Fleury and Marciano, 2018). Some authors see the public choice, as whole, critique of social-democrat values to be a fundamental part of its tenets (Thompson, 2008).

  • 26 It must be stressed that Buchanan did not consider himself a conservative (Buchanan, 2006), defendi (...)

60As mentioned in section 2, economically libertarian and (somewhat) morally conservative values guide the Virginia tradition.26 As Angeli (2019, 63) mentions, Buchanan believed economics to be a public science, making economists people with a public role to help the enlightenment of social problems, such as collective decision. For this reason, he urged the establishment of constitutional limits to economic policies—the economist could not stay silent when the world changed, and they must contribute to reveal the “set[s] of economic facts and laws … and that what to do with these is largely a matter for politicians or voters to decide.” (Dupré, 2007, 35).

  • 27 “In a letter to Olson subsequent to the publication of this review, Buchanan took issue with the im (...)

61On the other hand, other PCT scholars were aware of the zeal of their fellow founders and tried to downplay its relevance. Olson, in his review of Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent, warned about its “ideological emphasis.” For him, this emphasis “unfortunately narrows their appeal and perhaps obscures the objective importance of some of their theories” (Olson, 1962, 1217). He argued that the book should be merited for its theoretical advancements and not its ideology. Buchanan reacted to it, by claiming that Olson had a prejudiced view of his work (cf. Medema, 2009).27

62A further example of Olson trying to diminish the relevance of his libertarian colleagues’ ideology comes from his correspondence with Albert Hirschman. Gordon Tullock had written a negative and dismissive review of Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, and Olson wrote a letter to him apologizing for Tullock’s tone. Olson wrote that, in spite of Tullock belonging to the far right, public choice was open to leftists, himself being a Democrat; his words might have been an admission that Tullock’s review was more ideological than scientific. In his reply, Hirschman announced that he would be cutting relations with the Public Choice Society, and later would develop his project of political economy in opposition to PCT (cf. Adelman, 2013, 448-449).

63There are more examples in the literature of the libertarian reputation of PCT being an issue that turned away many scholars, which made them emphasize the neutrality of their alternatives. Gamble (1995, 530, italics added) wrote that “the liberation of public choice from a laissez-faire straitjacket has important implications for political economy,” by supplying microfoundations to it. Theory of economic policy scholars defended the neutrality of the PBC model in opposition to certain perceptions, claiming that, while the it had a “rationale for central bank independence,” an idea associated with a conservative macroeconomic approach, “it does not support conservatism in the sense of a more powerful anti-inflationary attitude than that in society as a whole” (Acocella et al., 2016, 140). Practitioners of political economics at Stanford intended their approach to be as apolitical as possible, to differentiate themselves from concurrent public choice approaches (private communication with Roger Noll, October 3, 2019). McLean (1991, 776) celebrated the fact that public choice was becoming less and less ideological than it was in its earlier years. Mitchell is more direct in his lament:

Many political scientists disdain economics and view the Virginians as arrogant, parochial, right-wing economists with imperialistic designs on their discipline—political science. Unlike Rochester, Virginia suffers from the role and fate of the brusque outsider attempting to impose alien ways and values on the home population. (Mitchell, 1988, 115).

  • 28 “North’s work was well-received in part because he mobilized data at the macro level that appeared (...)

64This was written in the late 1980s. Years later, new institutional economics became more popular amongst political scientists—Bates (2014) argued this shift happened because it facilitated a less hostile attitude towards the government,28 which created better research potential in treating the state not as inherently good or bad, but as a vehicle for human action. Douglass North himself said that public choice, especially the Virginian tradition, erred by treating the State as “little more than a giant theft machine” (Spencer and Macpherson, 2015, 168).

65One reason why this happens is because value judgements are integral part of politics. Following Colander (2009, 438), while Robbins defended that economics “should avoid value judgements,” he believed that political economy “should not only include but should necessarily embrace” them. According to Laffont (2000, 5), many economists ignore the political economy for this reason—not only because they consider them to be outside the economists’ concerns, but also that “some even believe that it is not ‘politically correct’ to develop policy recommendations altered by political considerations.” Therefore, in order to make political economy appealing to the mainstream economist, NPM authors had to work to show that it was as value free as possible. Thus, PCT would be more of a toolset to them, which diminishes its prestige in economics.

  • 29 Desmarais-Tremblay (2014) and Mróz (2019) discussed the relevance of value judgements in Buchanan’s (...)
  • 30 Writing from a heterodox point of view, May (1987, 721) argued that “the study of the political bus (...)

66Some would question the possibility of a value free economics, especially when applied to politics. The general argument advanced by Putnam and Walsh (2011) is that the return to classical political economy reintroduced value judgements in economics, especially in welfare economics—the same return to classical political economy advanced by public choice (e.g. McLean, 1991, 777)—allowing the discipline to become value laden once again. Boettke and Piano’s claim about the value free character of public choice has apologetic value, but that is acceptable only if one thinks it to be acceptable enough. For someone who contests the idea that economics is value free (e.g. May, 1987; Dupré, 2007; Putnam and Walsh, 2011), would that be the case?29 Do NPM scholars succeed in their quest to be value free or are they suffering the same problem as their PCT fellows?30 If PCT is value free then is it correct to say its role is merely to provide microfoundations to political economics? Due to lack of space, these questions should be addressed on another occasion. For the present article, it is enough to recognize their underlying influence in the separation between NPM (and other political economists), and PCT scholars themselves.

67Values are still present in the debates between PCT and NPM, however. In their rejoinder to NPM critics, Blankart and Koester (2007, 179-180) invoked the fact that PCT scholars, like the American Founders, “assign great importance to individual liberty as a criterion to evaluate political decisions and institutions” and lamented that such concerns were absent from the works of NPM scholars. They thus attempted to provide a moral high ground to their criticism—a criticism that NPM scholars considered “not easy to respond, … bold, and … ideologically loaded.” (Alesina et al., 2006, 205).

4. Conclusion: Are We Still in the Babel of Economics?

68Kenneth Shepsle, one of the most important pioneers of rational choice-based political science, commented that “macro-efforts to model politico-economic phenomena” are like watching a talking dog: “its remarkableness is not so much that it is done well, but that it is done at all” (Shepsle, 1988, 57). Certainly these efforts have evolved ever since.

69The NPM effort to include the political economy is part of the expansion in the scope of macroeconomics. Coase (1998, 72) wrote that his research was essentially microeconomic and “whether my strictures [on new institutional economics] apply also to macroeconomics I leave to others.” One could say that NPM scholars took Coase’s reflection seriously. Its method may have an affinity to the New Keynesian approach, with its emphasis on macroeconomic market failures, acceptance of rational expectations, and of general equilibrium. It is different from the public choice analysis of macroeconomics from DiD, for example, and has tried to shed most resemblances with it.

70Given its intersection with public choice, however, NPM can be classified at least as one of its traditions—that is why I call it a “separate tradition,” not affiliated with the public choice movement, a “non-public choice public choice.” Its subject of study, however, is “the economic role of the government” (Alt and Chrystal, 1983, 239, italics added), which implies a more proactive/interventionist view of government as an economic institution, not necessarily at odds with social democracy, but in potential conflict with the microeconomic prominence of PCT (Wagner, 1977; Olson, 1989).

  • 31 With the possible exception of the National Bureau of Economic Research Program in Political Econom (...)

71Although NPM has managed to create important research and attract talented scholars, as Gilles Saint-Paul wrote, mainstream economists were still skeptical of it, because it had not yet succeeded in creating “something comparable in scientific status to the life-cycle theory of savings or the Heckscher-Ohlin theory of international trade” (Saint-Paul, 2000, 917). In addition, it has no specific societies or journals that provide a proper hub for its practitioners.31 Martin Paldam (1993) once argued that public choice theory is both a branch and a sect of economics: a branch because they share rational choice theory with the mainstream and a sect because it studies issues that overlap with other fields, with different methods; the same can be said of new political macroeconomics.

  • 32 One might argue that PCT (at least its Virginian strand) has more in common with the project of “ma (...)

72Nevertheless, NPM and PCT remain distant from each other, in spite of overlapping. Padovano’s (2004) diagnosis of a lack of cooperation between the two traditions needs to be properly verified with scientometric studies, but at a first glance each tradition continues to develop separately from the other. In their criticism of Blankart and Koester, Alesina et al. (2006, 207) wrote that they “do not really understand why some researchers who claim to belong to the public choice tradition try to set themselves apart from the rest of economics.” In other words, while NPM scholars see themselves bringing collective decision-making closer to the mainstream, PCT goes a different direction—in their view, PCT scholars are the ones who are trying to separate themselves from economics.32

73These distinctions show that there are rational-choice political economists who do not want to be identified as public choice theorists, due to issues of method, values, and language in overall. These discussions seem to corroborate Robbins’s belief that values cannot be separated from political economy. And the issue of what language economists use is important, as Azariadis (2018) concluded in his review of De Vroey (2016): as long as macroeconomics does not unify its language, progress will be slow. The difference in languages is an important factor of separation: macroeconomics vs. microeconomics; Walrasian vs. Marshallian; reformist vs. libertarian.

74When asked about his greatest contribution to economic theory, Alesina said that it was his research on government behavior and its effects on economy policy in ways “which are consistent and use the same tools and language as economic theory in general” (Usabiaga Ibáñez, 1999, 19, italics added)—in other words, he intended to present issues of political economy in a way that (macro)economists could understand, discuss and replicate. As Congleton (2018, 241) wrote, “some of the most interesting and important results in public choice ‘simply’ made connections among the various research programs of public choice.” The kinds of possible connections between these programs are an open question, but cooperation will be less likely under different languages, as different languages in science usually imply different objectives and values—which may prevent political economy from becoming an integrated social science.

I would like to thank my PhD advisor Carlos Eduardo Suprinyak for the support and comments, and the two anonymous referees; I am grateful for the comments from Alexandre Cunha, Eduardo Angeli, Pedro Garcia Duarte, Luiz Bruzzi Curi, Lilian Furquim; I also would like to thank the participants of the sessions at the 2019 VII ALAHPE meeting in Curitiba, and the 2020 ASSA meeting in San Diego; Marianne Johnson for incentivizing me to submit to this special issue when we met in Duke. I probably would not have written it otherwise; Roger Noll and William Nordhaus for answering my questions; and the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa Científica (CNPq) for financial support.

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1 Since the objective of this edition of Œconomia is to study other traditions of public choice than the Virginia school, the terms “public choice” (in the general sense) and “analysis of collective decision-making” are used as synonyms in this article. Other terms considered by the JEL staff were “public choice” itself (refused due to the association with Buchanan and Tullock’s libertarianism), “political economy” (refused due to association with Marxism), “political economics” (refused due to being too parochial concerning Caltech and Stanford). The decision was met with criticism by public choice scholars (Cherrier, 2017, 576).

2 D7’s subdivisions are D70 (general), D71 (social choice, clubs, committees and associations), D72 (political processes, rent-seeking, lobbying, elections, legislative and voting behavior), D73 (bureaucracy, administrative processes and corruption), D74 (conflict and its resolution, alliances and revolutions), D78 (positive analysis of policy formulation and implementation) and D79 (other). Source available at:

3 al-Nowaihi and Garrat (1998) consider the research on political business cycles pre-rational expectations to be the “old political macroeconomics.”

4 Nagatani (1988) has influences from public choice but its main focus is Japanese organization theory, therefore its inclusion should be done with a caveat.

5 These terms might be used to refer to the work of political economists not affiliated with the public choice movement (e.g. Myerson, 2017), that is why NPM is preferred here. It should be noted that not all of these political economists are political macroeconomists.

6 There are other examples of this happening in economics. Mróz (2019, 245-247) contrasted the Austrian and the mainstream approaches to the business cycle; both have the same topic of research, but different ways to understand it. The source of these differences lay in their methodological value judgements, which can also explain the difference between the approaches analyzed in this article.

7 The term might be oxymoronic because public choice is usually seen as incompatible with Keynesian economics (Forte, 2012, 422). Few attempts have been made to approximate Keynes and public choice. One exception is Parsons (2012), who argued that public choice theory would benefit from Keynes’s insights on the rationality of public policy.

8 North’s review focused on how unoriginal the book was to be worthy of a grant, not mentioning anything about macroeconomics. Olson, if we consider an article published in the late 1980s containing a few of the themes of the book, would have argued that “in contrast to both new-classical and Keynesian views, the argument here implies that the single most important determinant of the macroeconomic performance of a society is the quality of its microeconomic policies and institutions,” in a pure microeconomic-public choice framework (Olson, 1989, 381).

9 Roy Harrod, Keynes’s first biographer, coined the term “presuppositions of Harvey Road” as a reference to Keynes’s childhood address, where he received one of the best upbringings the British could provide. It consisted of a “stable British empire and assured material progress” and “really important decisions being reached by a small group of intelligent people, like the group that fashioned the Bretton Woods plan” (Harrod, 1951, 4, 80, 183, 192-193). Bateman (2010, 20) argued that the expression is a derogatory term to accuse Keynes of having “a simplistic and unrealistic understanding of the economy and the human nature.” However, Cristiano (2014, 61) wrote that, while the term was indeed vague, it reflected a zeitgeist of the British Empire, of civic imperialism. This interpretation is corroborated by Waterman (2002, 40): “Secure in the selfless devotion of a noble army of upper-class statesmen, bureaucrats and colonial administrators, British economists from Jevons to Joan Robinson—almost all of whom were themselves drawn from that class—ignored the problems of political process and political agency.”

10 Values, both economic and moral, are a concern of the authors: “At this point, values cannot be left aside.” (DiD, 5). Romani (2018, 22) observed that DiD was a work that “tapped Americans’ traditional values, taking advantage of anxieties about work and rewards, planning for the future, and social stability.”

11 The last chapter of the book incorporates material from a congressional hearing on budget balancing (Buchanan and Wagner, 1975). It would explain why there are so many references to American patriotism (or jingoism, depending on the reader) in the text: the beginning of the book’s last paragraph reads as “We remain firm in our faith that Americans can shape their own destiny.” (DiD, 192).

12 2463, as of August 2020, according to Google Scholar.

13 Tobin was among the few economists who were mentioned by name in DiD (82). He was accused of failing to see the importance of politics in economic policy, a charge that is repeated recently (Eusepi and Wagner, 2016, 18). In their reply, Buchanan and Wagner (1978, 627-628) urged him not to take it personally.

14 There is controversy on whether Buchanan and Wagner’s portrayal of Keynes’s economics is accurate (see Bateman, 2005; 2007; Subrick, 2007). Johnson (2018), however, argued that Buchanan and Wagner’s concerns were others, and therefore they were not interested in a fully accurate picture of Keynes.

15 Kalecki (1943) introduced the term “political business cycle” in the literature. Nordhaus considered it to be “the only serious theory” to study PBCs (Nordhaus, 1975, 181). In his words, on how he came to learn of him: “I visited University of Cambridge in 1970-71 and was told about it by a colleague. Kalecki was an icon there, although I did not appreciate his work that much.” (Private communication with William Nordhaus, May 14, 2020). Kalecki’s method is incompatible with rational choice theory, though. For that reason, Dubois (2016) does not include his model as an antecedent to PBCs, situating the work of Johan Henrik Åkerman as the antecessor to Nordhaus’s model.

16 The reader can be directed to Franzese and Jusko (2006), Dubois (2016) and Cazals and Mandon (2019) for a proper literature review of the model.

17 According to Dubois (2016, 238) Nordhaus met Gerald Kramer at the Cowles Commission and, along with Ray Fair, they discussed how economic conditions could influence election results. According to Rosenthal (2006), Kramer studied under William Riker at Rochester, before going to the Cowles Commission. His work emphasized empirical research based on rational choice theory, following the Rochester tradition of positive political economy.

18 As a matter of comparison, other PBC models show similar citation patterns: MacRae (1977) did not mention Downs (1957), but it did mention Kramer (1971), with the additional citation of Black (1958), in order to model strategic behavior of voters in a PBC, something not present in Nordhaus’s model. Lindbeck (1976) mentioned Downs (1957) and Kramer (1971), besides Frey and Lau (1968).

19 Bruno Frey, along with Laurence Lau, had developed a public choice model that incorporated the politician’s self-interest similarly to Nordhaus (Frey and Lau, 1968; Dubois, 2016, 238).

20 Using information from RePec, we see that Nordhaus is a macroeconomist and environmental economist, MacRae is an urban economist, and Lindbeck is a macroeconomist and public economist. None of them seemed to be affiliated to the Public Choice Society at any point of their careers. Lindbeck published two articles in Public Choice, though in the late 1980s. See at:

21 While this might not be very rigorous evidence, checking the citations on Google Scholar of Wagner’s works (only those relevant to his critique cited in this article; I did not count DiD), we see that no relevant macroeconomics work reference any of them. The only exception is Snowdon and Vane (2005) citing Wagner (1977). Recently, Wagner (2020) has moved further away from mainstream macroeconomics, proposing a new understanding of the discipline based on ideas of systems theory, incorporating the critique stated above. While Wagner may enjoy prestige among his peers in Austrian and public choice traditions, it is yet to be seen if Wagner (2020) will have any lasting influence on macroeconomics itself.

22 Even though he did not identify himself with any school of thought (Snowdon and Vane, 2005, 572). When asked if he considered himself an “institutionalist,” Alesina replied: “I hate that word, I don’t know what it means, and, in general, I hate labels.” (Usabiaga Ibáñez, 1999, 7).

23 It might be argued that it resembles the “Marshallian” and “Walrasian” divide in macroeconomics (e.g. De Vroey, 2016), reflected in the analysis of collective decision making instead. Further investigations in this direction can be a theme for later.

24 Mitchell (1988, 116) claimed that scholars such as James Q. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, Edward Banfield, Robert Dahl, Terry Moe, Robert Salisbury, and Theodore Low can be labelled “‘closeted’ public choice analysts.” It is hard to tell if these authors would be glad to hear this.

25 Mueller’s argument can be seen as a fallacy named “some of my best friends” (Plumer, 2011), because he used it to deflect criticism, without properly addressing it.

26 It must be stressed that Buchanan did not consider himself a conservative (Buchanan, 2006), defending instead that conservatism is inferior to the classical liberal tradition. His defense of traditional notions of family and American values in DiD, however, is enough to put him close to conservatism. While any researcher must be aware of the differences between the two approaches, these affinities make alliances and conflation of libertarians and conservatives, especially against the left, almost inevitable in social and practical matters, as in the case of conservative figurehead Irving Kristol, who started as anti-libertarian, but evolved to embrace it (Hamburger and Steinmetz-Jenkins, 2018). Besides, as Romani (2018) argued, Buchanan wrote in a context where the conservative and libertarian positions converged and were willing to tolerate each other.

27 “In a letter to Olson subsequent to the publication of this review, Buchanan took issue with the imputation of ‘right-wing prejudice.’ He argued that ‘the book was devoted to deriving a simple logic of political choice from a position of methodological individualism’ and wondered whether Olson was actually suggesting that ‘anyone who tries to derive logical basis for democratic government from a consideration of individual choice is guilty of right-wing prejudice.’ Buchanan thought that Olson’s interpretation was, ‘fundamentally a reaction of a strong emotional nature to the ideas,’ rather than a ‘reasoned position that is based on careful examination of the arguments themselves.’ He did allow that the book that the book stimulated in others, especially political scientists, reactions similar to those expressed by Olson, but he believed that these reactions actually derived from the inability of the readers to distinguish between methodology and ideology.” (Medema, 2009, 142).

28 “North’s work was well-received in part because he mobilized data at the macro level that appeared to confirm the implications of the reasoning that others were developing at the micro level. Had these advances in micro theory not taken place, contemporary political economy might well have remained the provenance of public choice theory; instead, ‘institutions rule.’” (Bates, 2014, 54).

29 Desmarais-Tremblay (2014) and Mróz (2019) discussed the relevance of value judgements in Buchanan’s work and concluded there are clearly normative parts. Angeli (2019, 63, translated) wrote that, for Buchanan, “the distinction between positive and normative economics is, in a certain way, deceiving.”

30 Writing from a heterodox point of view, May (1987, 721) argued that “the study of the political business cycle is significant in that the orthodox approach merely provides another rationale for limiting the role of government in the area of stabilization policy”, therefore not value free.

31 With the possible exception of the National Bureau of Economic Research Program in Political Economy. See at:

32 One might argue that PCT (at least its Virginian strand) has more in common with the project of “mainline economics” than with either the mainstream or heterodoxy (Angeli, 2014). Thus, the relationship between NPM and mainline economics should be a topic for future research.

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Rafael Galvão de Almeida, « A Macroeconomic View of Public Choice: New Political Macroeconomics as a Separate Tradition of Public Choice »Œconomia, 11-1 | 2021, 77-105.

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Rafael Galvão de Almeida, « A Macroeconomic View of Public Choice: New Political Macroeconomics as a Separate Tradition of Public Choice »Œconomia [En ligne], 11-1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2021, consulté le 24 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Rafael Galvão de Almeida

PhD in Economics, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil,

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