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Alternative Traditions in Public Choice

Are there Alternative Traditions in Public Choice? An Introduction

Marianne Johnson, Alain Marciano and Manuela Mosca
p. 3-8


This brief note introduces readers to the papers published in this issue on the theme of “Alternative Traditions in Public Choice.” While the field of Public Choice is commonly seen to have been born of Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent (1962), the guest editors encouraged submissions to consider alternative influences. Instead, the papers illustrate the difficulty of disentangling Public Choice from the influence of Buchanan and the underlying political philosophy of the Virginia School. This suggests something about the importance of Buchanan in the field but, also, tells us that scholars themselves have difficulties to escape the path-dependence that exists in the history of economic thought.

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1The essays in this volume are the result of a request for scholars to consider a broader array of influences when writing and evaluating the history of the field of Public Choice. Although its origins are mainly traced back to Wicksell as well as to the Italian economists of the 1880s, and sometimes even further back to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Condorcet, Tocqueville and others, Public Choice is generally understood to have emerged as a sub-field at the beginning of the 1960s, with the publication of The Calculus of Consent, co-authored by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (1962), and the associated 1963 conference on “non-market decision making” at the University of Virginia. These were the catalysts for an intellectual movement characterized by the use of economic tools and methods to analyze political phenomena and political decision making. The movement slowly and difficultly took shape over the next twenty years. Progressively, Buchanan and Tullock came to be seen as the major actors in this field, contributing through their writings, but also through their actions to structure the field with conferences, journals, and societies (see Medema 2000 for a description of how the field was professionalized). This central role was attested by Buchanan’s 1986 Nobel Prize, received for having proposed “a synthesis of the theories of political and economic decision-making (public choice)”. It was thus officially recognized that Buchanan’s variant of Public Choice was the major, if not the only form, of economic analysis of political phenomena. This variant of Public Choice is known as “Virginia Public Choice” or “Virginia Political Economy”. The recent publication of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains (2017) furthers this conflation, equating Buchanan with Public Choice.

2Without denying their importance, we had hoped to contribute to the construction of a broader and more polysemic history of Public Choice. Our challenge to the contributors was: how to write a history of Public Choice as the “science of politics”, a methodology invented to study political decisions by reframing politics (and democracy) as political decision making? At the same time Buchanan and Tullock were writing The Calculus, other scholars—economists as well as political scientists—were pursuing related analyses. Some were associated with that first conference at the University of Virginia. One can list the names of economists such as Kenneth Arrow, Alan Peacock, Duncan Black, and Anthony Downs, or political scientists such as William Riker, Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, Elinor Ostrom, Vincent Ostrom, or Mancur Olson that helped open the field. In the later 1960s, they were joined by Thomas Schelling and Warren Samuels who became important contributors to Public Choice, even if in a different way and from a different perspective.

3The first paper in this special issue is the one by David Coker and Ross Emmet. They go back to the roots or origins of the field. Indeed, they examine Frank Knight’s influence on Public Choice by illustrating how many of the core insights of Public Choice are clearer when we consider them in the context of Knight’s work and philosophy. The core of the paper considers Knight’s Intelligence and Democratic Action (1960), a series of lectures given in 1958 by Knight at Virginia—Knight was a visiting scholar at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Political Economy Buchanan, Nutter and Vining had just created. Coker and Emmett show that some of the ideas Knight then discussed can be said to have influenced Buchanan precisely when he started to think of using economics to analyze rules and institutions. The lectures took place at a seminal moment, they argue. Buchanan started from Knight’s insights and then pushed them further, transforming them—as they note, Buchanan “extrapolat[es] and innovat[es]”. This tends to obscure the underlying connection between Knight and Buchanan. This does not mean that we should not forget or overlook it. It might well be that Knight was a forerunner of the Public Choice program.

4Jacob Jensen examines the origins of Downs’s equilibrium-based theory of democratic decision-making. Like Knight and Buchanan, Downs sought to understand the expansive growth of government in the post-war period. Downs opened his An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957, 3) with the observation that, despite the empirical fact that governments dominate the “economic scene,” “the role of government in the world of economic theory is not at all commensurate with this dominance.” To rectify the oversight, Downs explicitly set out to model collective decision-making as a process for equilibrating the demand and supply of public goods. Rather than following the type of work on public goods done by Samuelson and Musgrave, however, Jensen argues that Downs instead drew inspiration from Schumpeter, Hotelling, and Lippman (more on this below).

5The next paper studies the work of another scholar who influenced Buchanan and played a decisive role in the emergence of Public Choice, Gordon Tullock. The latter arrived at the University of Virginia in 1958, as a post-doctoral fellow. Tullock had already worked on an economic analysis of bureaucracy and he started to work with Buchanan on majority voting. That was a crucial question for Buchanan—in his debate with Samuelson. In his contribution to this special issue, Julien Grandjean precisely discusses Tullock’s and Buchanan’s work on that and examines how Tullock and Buchanan came to conclude that majority voting was fundamentally flawed. The paper breaks new ground by carefully disentangling the various influences that led Tullock to conclude there was no easy fix for the problems engendered by majority voting, whether it be logrolling, ideologically driven political parties, or compensation schemes. While Buchanan encouraged Tullock’s explorations into optimal voting schemes to respect individual freedoms and produce stable outcomes, the work of Black and Downs stimulated Tullock’s practical and mechanistic considerations. The remainder of the paper traces these various influences through the conception and writing of The Calculus of Consent to explain both its philosophical orientation and the evolution of the argument for separation of constitutional level decision-making from within-game decision-making.

6Tullock shared a similar intellectual tradition with Downs. As such, Grandjean’s paper is in dialog with the previous paper in the issue written by Jacob Jensen. Jensen explores Downs on the nature and role of government, individual voting decision-making, and the functioning of bureaucracy. Grandjean does the same for Tullock. Both emphasize the importance of an exchange of correspondence and articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the two authors, including an article and response in the Journal of Political Economy. Jensen approaches the exchange from the perspective of Downs; Grandjean from the perspective of Tullock. Yet, despite a shared intellectual history and friendly exchange of views, Downs and Tullock wound up on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the appropriate scope for government, with Downs arguing for larger government budgets and Tullock for smaller ones.

7Rafael Galvão de Almeida’s paper considers the overlap between New Political Macroeconomics and more traditional Public Choice Theory rooted in microeconomic analysis. The paper proceeds by following the disparate traditions of New Political Macroeconomics, which followed the formal modeling of William Nordhaus’s “Political Business Cycles” (1975), and the anti-government macro-policy analysis that grew out of the Keynesian critique of Buchanan and Richard Wagner’s Democracy in Deficit (1977). Galvão de Almeida ends with a serious discussion of how the perception that Public Choice is ‘right wing’ and inherently libertarian has caused many followers of New Political Macroeconomics to shy away from such association. Mancur Olson’s critical review of Calculus of Consent is but one example provided of the concern regarding the “ideological emphasis” of Public Choice. Galvão de Almeida concludes that the insistence by New Political Macroeconomists that they inhabit a separate field from Public Choice is rooted in their distaste for value-laden economics which they see in the philosophical leanings associated with Buchanan, Tullock, and the Virginia School.

8The last paper in this issue makes a different sort of contribution to understanding the various intellectual streams that contributed to the development of Public Choice. This paper is more a personal reminiscence on Tullock than a standard academic article. Francesco Forte and Gordon Brady—who were indeed involved in the emergence and consolidation of the field—tell us a story about their experiences and views of the Tullock's contributions to Public Choice. In this sense, the paper complements Grandjean’s, adding a different and one may say unique perspective to the discussion on the evolution of Public Choice. Brady and Forte consider the ‘unconventional economist’ Gordon Tullock in a way that is part remembrance and part analysis. Reflected through the lens of their personal relationships with Tullock, they make the case that Tullock’s influence on modern Public Choice is wider than commonly represented. Gordon Brady was part of the first generation of graduate students to study under Buchanan and Tullock at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He remained a lifelong friend, colleague, and co-author of Tullock. Francesco Forte may have met Buchanan initially during Buchanan’s Fulbright year in Italy (1955-1956). However, it was while Forte served as an associate professor at the University of Virginia with Buchanan (1962-1967) that their personal collaborations and intellectual exchanges began in earnest. As such, this first-person account provides an interesting perspective on the development of Public Choice. The paper would benefit from being read in conjunction with broader historical surveys of the field, including Cherrier and Fleury (2017), Fleury and Marciano (2018), Medema (2011; 2013), and especially Medema (2005) or Levy and Peart (2020).

9All in all, the papers presented here show alternative traditions in Public Choice to a certain extent only. The works of Downs or Nordhaus receive attention they do not usually receive. Also, the possible influence of Knight is suggested and this is rather new. But the story of the field seems to always revolve around Buchanan (and Tullock), as if it were difficult to disentangle the history of Public Choice from his influence and the centrality of the underlying political philosophy represented by the Virginia School. This suggests something about the importance of Buchanan in the field but, also, tells us that scholars themselves have difficulties to escape the path-dependence that exists in the history of economic thought.

10Before we conclude, we would like to thank the editors of Œconomia, especially Jean-Sébastien Lenfant and Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay.

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Buchanan, James M., and Gordon Tullock. 1962. The Calculus of Consent. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Buchanan, James M. and Richard E. Wagner. 1977. Democracy in Deficit. The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes. New York: Academic Press.

Cherrier, Beatrice and Jean-Baptiste Fleury. 2017. Economists’ Interest in Collective Decision After World War II: A History. Public Choice, 172(1-2): 23-44.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.

Fleury, Jean-Baptiste and Alain Marciano. 2018. The Sound of Silence: A Review Essay of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Journal of Economic Literature, 56(4): 1492-1537.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2020. Towards an Economics of Natural Equals. A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacLean, Nancy. 2017. Democracy in Chains. The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking.

Medema, Steven G. 2000. Related Disciplines: The Professionalization of Public Choice Analysis. History of Political Economy, 32(Supplement): 289-323.

Medema, Steven G. 2005. ‘Marginalizing’ Government: From La Scienza Delle Finanze to Wicksell. History of Political Economy, 37(1): 1-25.

Medema, Steven G. 2011. Public Choice and the Notion of Creative Communities. History of Political Economy, 43(1): 225-246.

Medema, Steven G. 2013. Creating a Paradox: Self-Interest, Civic Duty, and the Evolution of the Rational Voter in the Formative Era of Public Choice Analysis. Œconomia, 3(1): 61-86.

Nordhaus, William D. 1975. The Political Business Cycle. Review of Economic Studies, 42(2): 169-190.

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Bibliographical reference

Marianne Johnson, Alain Marciano and Manuela Mosca, Are there Alternative Traditions in Public Choice? An Introduction”Œconomia, 11-1 | 2021, 3-8.

Electronic reference

Marianne Johnson, Alain Marciano and Manuela Mosca, Are there Alternative Traditions in Public Choice? An Introduction”Œconomia [Online], 11-1 | 2021, Online since 01 March 2021, connection on 25 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Marianne Johnson

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

By this author

Alain Marciano

Université de Montpellier.

By this author

Manuela Mosca

Università del Salento.

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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