In the wake of successful pump-priming during the Great Depression, many economists placed their faith in government to correct the social ills that seem to plague modern mixed economies. Legislators and bureaucrats were viewed as enlightened public servants, inspired always to act in the public interest. Economists of this school of thought view identifying and proposing ideal governmental solutions as serving the public interest, and look on practical political problems associated with these solutions as outside the scope of their expertise.
For more than three decades, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock have attempted to change this conception of government and to reconstruct the theory of the public sector based on economic precepts of individual behavior. Their desire is to make the study of politics—"public choice" as they call it—more precise and scientific. Joined in this effort by their students and numerous converts to the public choice school of thought, Buchanan and Tullock have made great strides in trying to integrate political science and economics. Using the principles of economics as a touchstone, they have provided an individualistic notion of public choice and have attempted to test the validity of their theories with real-world data.
The starting point of the Buchanan / Tullock thesis is that all decisions are made by individuals, and the most powerful driving force in any decision is the self-interest of the decision maker. In this theory, politicians and bureaucrats are no different from other decisionmakers merely by virtue of their offices. In fact, these individuals tend to pursue bureaucratic "profits," although the latter are commonly revealed in ways other than fatter paychecks: plush offices, chauffeured limousines, expensive gym facilities and dining halls, beautiful (if not talented} secretaries, and above all, expansions in the sizes and powers of their bureaucracies. As elementary as this seems—at least to economists—it is amazing how far this premise can be pushed to make modem political behavior intelligible and predictable. Few modern economists have done as much as Buchanan and Tullock to expose the nature of economic incentives within the public sector.
Individually and in concert, they have also written widely on a number of economic policy problems, but especially on public finance, public goods, and externalities. In The Calculus of Consent, they attempt to develop a theory of constitutions and to analyze political behavior under alternative group decision rules (for example, simple majority, plurality, and so forth). Their later work sought to explain the emergence of law, government, and property rights. Tullock wrote a paper that developed the concept of "rent-seeking" at about the same time that Anna Schwartz of the University of Chicago exposited the same concept. Work on public choice continues to this day, always using the individual as foundation for the analysis.
Buchanan is a native of Tennessee and a Ph.D. economist trained at the University of Chicago. Interestingly, Tullock has a law degree from the University of Chicago, but no degrees in economics per se. Both have been academic vagabonds, centering their research and teaching at schools ranging from the University of Virginia to Rice to VPI to the University of Arizona. A schism between the two followed Buchanan's being awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986. Ultimately, however, they were reunited at George Mason University. Wherever they have moved, research into the individualistic nature of "public choice" has proceeded at a vigorous pace.