Self interest and the common good

I am still seeing a lot of confusion in the public choice community about what it means to say that politicians or government employees are "self-interested." For instance, I just read a (draft) paper by someone prominent in the public choice world who wrote (I quote from memory): "Government officials don't pursue the common good. They are no better than anyone else: they are just out to realize their self-interest as well."

I offer a real-world happening for your contemplation in this regard:

While living on the corner of Court and Atlantic in Brooklyn, a number of years ago, I noticed that the light was designed wrongly: the green light on Atlantic would turn to yellow and then red, and then, after a couple of seconds, the traffic on Atlantic would get a green arrow to turn left onto Court. This was a problem, because when pedestrians saw the light turn red, being New Yorkers, they would start to cross Atlantic right away, without waiting for the cross walk signal to turn, and not realizing that a bunch of cars that had been waiting to turn left would soon start crossing their paths. And the drivers that had been waiting to go left, having sat still for some time, and knowing their green arrow time would be limited, would race to make the turn.

Having seen a number of near accidents, where a car narrowly avoided a pedestrian, I grew worried about this light. One day, I approached two cops on foot, and explained to them the problem, and how to fix it: put the left-turn arrow at the beginning of the light cycle, so that the cross walk signal had just turned red, and pedestrians would be expecting traffic. The cops listened carefully to what I said, and replied that they would report the problem.

A month or two later, the light was changed to work as I had recommended. I can't guarantee that my conversation with the cops caused the change, but the evidence suggests it plausibly could have. Let's imagine it did so.

I certainly did not report this for any narrowly self-interested gain: living on that corner, I already knew the light cycle. But in the broader (Misesian) sense of self-interest, I was of course acting in my self-interest: I was very interested in not seeing someone being crushed by a car at my corner!

And we can imagine the cops who reported my finding were similarly motivated: perhaps they might get promotions for forwarding my worry, but most likely they, too, were not looking forward to a messy traffic death on their beat.

Now compare this to a hypothetical ambulance-chaser lawyer, anxious to find cases to bring a lawsuit against drivers. He lobbies against changing the light (he will invent some respectable reason), since he sees the badly designed light will bring him more cases, and more monetary gain, than would the properly designed one. He, too, is acting in his Misesian self-interest, but also in his self-interest in the narrow sense.

T. H. Green understood the process of becoming more moral precisely as one of realizing that one's true self-interest and one's interest in the common good are complementary, rather than opposed. We needn't here ask whether Green's conception captures the whole of morality, but can merely note that it cerainly captures an important aspect of it.

And there is no particular reason to think that politicians, as opposed to the rest of us, are incapable of so aligning their self-interest with the common good. (Hayek's chapter on "Why the Worst Get on Top" very specifically addressed politicians in totalitarian regimes, not politicians in general.) Of course, they are just as likely as the rest of to let those two factors drift apart. But the naive public choice critique of political actors is unsound, for the reason explained above.


  1. "Of course, [politicians] are just as likely as the rest of to let those two factors [self-interest and the common good] drift apart."

    True. And they're also just as likely as that rest of us to conflate the two.

    But their more centralized and effectual control of community resources magnifies the negative effects of such drift/conflation.

    1. Idiot who droped by using "pigs" for "cops": Bye-bye!