Murray Rothbard versus the Public Choice School
Murray Rothbard was at one time good friends with Gordon Tullock, one of the founders of the public choice analysis of government, and he also corresponded on friendly terms with James Buchanan, another of the founders. Both Rothbard and the public choice movement look with suspicion on claims by agents of the government to be acting for the common good, and both support the free market, though Rothbard does so to a much greater degree. Despite these points of agreement, Rothbard has some fundamental criticisms of public choice, and I’d like to look at one of these in this week’s column.
What I take to be the most important disagreement between Rothbard and public choice is this: Rothbard doesn’t take a value neutral attitude toward the state: he hates it. He sees the state as predatory. As he puts it in Anatomy of the State, “The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively ‘peaceful’ the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society.” By contrast, he views people outside the state, aside from criminals, as engaged in peaceful exchange. There is, then, a dichotomy between people in the state and nonstate actors.
The public choice school denies that this dichotomy exists. The key point of their analysis of government is that people in government act to promote their private interests, in the same way as private actors. That is to say, government officials aren’t more “public spirited” than private businessmen, but neither are they worse in their motives. The basic distinction, emphasized by Rothbard, that the state’s activities are coercive, in contrast to the peaceful exchanges in the free market, is
Article from LewRockwell