The American voting public continues to return each year to the voting booth despite gross abuses of power by elected (and unelected) officials at all levels of government. Acknowledging the government’s general ineptitude has become a national pastime of sorts, with politics seeping its way into pop culture at nearly every turn.
Many people binge-watch shows depicting Washington DC as a sexy, amoral madhouse (see: House of Cards), yet still wipe a tear and clutch their hearts when speaking of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the Founding Fathers, and even Leslie Knope. But why? Probably because of lack of familiarity with public choice theory.

What is Public Choice Theory?

Public choice theory is an economic framework applied to the analysis of political agents (yawn). Economist James M. Buchanan (not to be confused with the President), one of its principal theorists, had a better way of phrasing it: He called it, “politics without romance.”
Public choice theory analyzes the preferences and incentives faced by those operating in the political system. From voters to politicians to bureaucrats, these groups all have their own, oftentimes conflicting, interests and incentives.
The romantic view of government sees it as the first and last line of defense against the shortcomings of human nature. But government is staffed by these same fallible people, and our human shortcomings don’t suddenly disappear once we’re elected to public office. What results is an environment ripe for corruption, deceit, intimidation, and general incompetence. In short, it’s an endless supply of material for Hollywood.
Here are three movies that can help to demonstrate the concept of public choice theory in action.

In The Loop (2009)

Crucial Quote: “Twelve thousand troops (needed). But that’s not enough. That’s the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

Fans of the HBO comedy series Veep will love the cynical political satire and foul-mouthed barbs in Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop. The film depicts high level officials in the British and American governments screaming at each other over whether or not to invade the Middle East. Bureaucrats in both governments form alliances and embark on disinformation campaigns to derail the efforts of the “other side.”
The characters pushing for war are impervious to facts that show invasion would be disastrous. But facts ultimately take a back seat to ego and opinion.
The film’s self-righteous characters do not speak in terms of justice, necessity, or democracy, except when speaking in platitudinous nonsense to the media. Instead, they insult, lie, and manipulate rapaciously to achieve their goals. “Politics without romance” indeed.
What’s most instructive about In the Loop is that the entire film hangs on whether or not to declare war, yet we never see the millions of people who inevitably pay the price for the decisions these megalomaniacs make. The “public good” of invasion devolves into private passions and preferences at the all levels of government.
Economics researcher Jane S. Shaw finds this entirely consistent with public choice: “Although legislators are expected to pursue the ‘public interest,’ they make decisions on how to use other people’s resources, not their own.” When you’re not on the hook for the costs of your decisions, there’s a strong incentive to make risky or unsound decisions. This concept, called “moral hazard,” Is central to public choice theory.

Snowpiercer (2013) (Some Spoilers)

Crucial Quote: “…you need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear and chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don’t have that, we need to invent it. In that sense, the Great Curtis Revolution you invented was truly a masterpiece.”

It’s hard to explain what Snowpiercer is about, and even harder to explain why it’s fantastic. It’s a bizarre blend of comedy, horror, dystopianism, and overt parable that touches on everything from climate change to the nature of revolutions to the laws of thermodynamics. One could also argue that Snowpiercer is a metaphor for anarchism, Marxian class analysis, and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But we’re talking about the film in an article about public choice theory, so—guess what?—the film is also a wonderful public choice allegory.
The entire film takes place in 2031, on a high speed train barreling across the planet in a long, continuous loop. Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; failed attempts at engineering a reversal of climate change made the problem worse. The remainder of humanity populates the train, with the lower classes (the proletariat, if you will) crammed into the back. Life at the back of the train is brutal and claustrophobic, with armed soldiers frequently abducting children for mysterious reasons.
Well, Curtis (played by Captain America’s Chris Evans) has had enough. Curtis leads a revolution to take over the front of the train and end the brutal suppression of the caboose peoples. The revolutionaries overpower the soldiers and begin a bloody putsch towards the head of the train—passing through cars that each represent higher social classes. By the time his revolution has hit the engine room, the carnage left behind has turned Curtis into a monster himself. He’s poised to overthrow the train’s leader (Ed Harris) but it’s clear that he isn’t likely to be any better a “leader.”
The train plows on ineluctably, and it really doesn’t matter who is sitting at the head of the train because the tracks are already laid. Just so with public choice theory. As Professor William Shugart drily puts it, “One key conclusion of public choice is that changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not produce major changes in policy outcomes.”
Government/non-market failure isn’t about our society’s failure to “put the right person in charge.”

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Crucial Quote:   “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.”

There are few professionals more hated than lobbyists. Lobbyists are often thought of as the symbol of everything that is wrong with our political system, with special venom reserved for groups like the NRA and “Big Tobacco.”
Thank You for Smoking’s main character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is one such tobacco lobbyist. In the film, tobacco sales are down, and it is up to Naylor to drive sales back up. Naylor fights against anti-smoking campaigns, spearheads attempts to slip more tobacco use into films, combats efforts by a Senator to add a stronger warning label to cigarette packs, bribes an actor who played the Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer from coming forward, and generally lies, cheats, and dissembles his way through the film.
And yet, Naylor, ostensibly a crusader for an evil cause, runs on pure charisma. He doesn’t just seduce the film’s other characters, he seduces the audience as well. We like this glaring cognitive dissonance.
From a public choice perspective, it makes plenty of sense. Politicians and bureaucrats are people too. They’re as likely as anyone else to be seduced by charming operators. And unlike the average voter, big industries can afford to hire the very best to represent their interests in government. Public choice theorist Mancur Olson referred to this as the logic of collective action.
Olson and other economists have pointed out that lobbying lawmakers and bureaucrats is much more effective than voting. Certain industries can push politicians to grant them privileges, even when the wider public opposes it. The benefits of lobbying are very concentrated, while the social costs of these privileges are dispersed across the country as a whole. The concept of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits is a powerful tool in understanding what makes for good public policy.
If you’re hungry for more on public choice (and brave), you could venture into the major public choice theorists’ actual work, like Gordon Tullock’s Government Failure, James Buchanan’s The Calculus of Consent, or Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action.
We at Learn Liberty fully expect that the next time you’re at the movies, and some noble public servant character is about to save the day, you will begin screaming about the need to apply a Tullockian economic analysis so that the other patrons are reminded of the sexy findings of public choice.