Acton Institute Powerblog

A Public Choice Primer

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Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, has an excellent primer on public choice in the August 3 edition of Forbes, “The New PC.” Shlaes is also the author of the 2007 book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Shlaes, who will be featured in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty, writes, “Government reformers view themselves as morally superior, but that is an illusion. They are just like private-sector operators, who do things that are in their own interest, not society’s. Those things include taking advantage of an economic crisis to aggregate power for themselves and their offices.” She goes on to point out five specific instances of recent government action that fits the public choice paradigm.

I have no doubt that many enter politics with good intentions. Some even follow through on those intentions and work for their constituencies. But a precious few remain uncontaminated and uncorrupted by the temptations that political power offers.

This reality is a strong argument in favor of term limits. Even though the individual constiuencies might lose out by replacing older, more senior representatives, who have garnered the most powerful appointments and consolidated the most influence, it has the happy consequence of putting caps on political clout. Every so often the slate is rubbed clean and alliances, power partnerships, and appointments need to be rebuilt.

Anything that puts an absolute ceiling on an individual politician’s power seems like a step in the right direction. Of course, an unintended consequence is that with the sundown of their political career always in view, an individual politician will be just that much more focused on greasing the skids to a comfy private sector job after the term limits come into effect.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • The most recent employment numbers divulged increases in public workers — government employees — but nothing in the private sector. I think the numbers on that portion of the U.S. GDP “gross domestic product” put government at 27% but it could be higher and will be if the Obama plans are allowed to go forth. He wants to overwhelm the private sector with a spoils system like none ever imagined.

    “Allowed to go forth” is where we need to be focusing. But I’ve noticed in the discussion and reporting of the Obama plans a fait accompli among many in our midst as if the “public choice” has been taken off the table.

    This is where we need to focus going into the fall. Just as with football practice when we work on the basics of blocking and tackling, keeping the ball close the body so the opposition can’t cause a fumble — we need to get back to the “first principles” that have echoed in the townhall meetings. The angry “you work for me” is not an empty shout.

    It’s the basis for a representative kind of government. And turning the bastards out doesn’t need to wait for a term limit. November 2010 is 15 months away, but who’s counting.


    Term limits is certainly a gentle way to control government excesses. Many who visit my businesss believe the whole of Congress should be thrown out of office. Personally, I’d like to see Barney Frank, Chris Dodd and a few others with cells adjoining Bernie Madoff. These elected do-gooders have halved the life savings of millions of Americans and countless others around the world.
    There are features in the pprposed health care legislation that should be tried in Nuremburg.

  • It is to read all the anti-government comments such as these on your website.

    Here in Canada we have a spectrum of views, but all agree that there is a role for both governmental and private initiatives in all affairs.

    Moreover, these comments are contradictory to Acton’s own dictum at the top of your page. “Power tends to corrupt,”–but only tends and need not necessarily, I could show you dozens of fine government officials here who make life well for all. “. . . and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But moderately used and regulated power can bring great benefits to people.

  • Rabbi Ellis,

    Do you really think that “there is a role for both governmental and private initiatives in all affairs”? Can you not think of any aspect of life in which a government initiative is not warranted? Or am I misunderstanding you?

    I certainly affirm the role of political leaders as one setup and ordained by God, and therefore accountable ultimately to him. That shouldn’t mean that governments are beyond reproach, or that we are naive or unconcerned about the very powerful temptations that those in government face. Indeed, a good king is a blessing to all, just as a bad king is a curse to all.

    To limit government is to affirm it and support it within its own proper boundaries, not to destroy it.