Political economics and normative analysis
The approaches and opinions of economists often dominate public policy discussion. Economists have gained this privileged position partly (or perhaps mainly) because of the obvious relevance of their subject matter, but also because of the unified methodology (neo-classical economics) that the vast majority of modern economists bring to their analysis of policy problems and proposed solutions. The idea of Pareto efficiency and its potential trade-off with equity is a central idea that is understood by all economists and this common language provides the economics profession with a powerful voice in public affairs. The purpose of this paper is to review and reflect upon the way in which economists find themselves analysing and providing suggestions for social improvements and how this role has changed over roughly the last 60 years. We focus on the fundamental split in the public economics tradition between those that adhere to public finance and those that adhere to public choice. A pure public finance perspective views failures in society as failures of the market. The solutions are technical, as might be enacted by a benevolent dictator. The pure public choice view accepts (sometimes grudgingly) that markets may fail, but so, it insists, does politics. This signals institutional reforms to constrain the potential for political failure. Certain policy recommendations may be viewed as compatible with both traditions, but other policy proposals will be the opposite of that proposed within the other tradition. In recent years a political economics synthesis emerged. This accepts that institutions are very important and governments require constraints, but that some degree of benevolence on the part of policy makers should not be assumed non-existent. The implications for public policy from this approach are, however, much less clear and perhaps more piecemeal. We also discuss analyses of systematic failure, not so much on the part of markets or politicians, but by voters. Most clearly this could lead to populism and relaxing the idea that voters necessarily choose their interests. The implications for public policy are addressed. Throughout the paper we will relate the discussion to the experience of UK government policy-making.
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