CAMBRIDGE – There was a time when we economists steered clear of politics. We viewed our job as describing how market economies work, when they fail, and how well-designed policies can enhance efficiency. We analyzed trade-offs between competing objectives (say, equity versus efficiency), and prescribed policies to meet desired economic outcomes, including redistribution. It was up to politicians to take our advice (or not), and to bureaucrats to implement it.
Then some of us became more ambitious. Frustrated by the reality that much of our advice went unheeded (so many free-market solutions still waiting to be taken up!), we turned our analytical toolkit on the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats themselves. We began to examine political behavior using the same conceptual framework that we use for consumer and producer decisions in a market economy. Politicians became income-maximizing suppliers of policy favors; citizens became rent-seeking lobbies and special interests; and political systems became marketplaces in which votes and political influence are traded for economic benefits.
Thus was born the field of rational-choice political economy, and a style of theorizing that many political scientists readily emulated. The apparent payoff was that we could now explain why politicians did so many things that violated economic rationality. Indeed, there was no economic malfunction that the two words “vested interests” could not account for.
Why are so many industries closed off to real competition? Because politicians are in the pockets of the incumbents who reap the rents. Why do governments erect barriers to international trade? Because the beneficiaries of trade protection are concentrated and politically influential, while consumers are diffuse and disorganized. Why do political elites block reforms that would spur economic growth and development? Because growth and development would undermine their hold on political power. Why are there financial crises? Because banks capture the policymaking process so that they can take excessive risks at the expense of the general public.