Exchange, Unanimity and Consent: A Defence of the Public Choice Account of Power

PUBLIC CHOICE 158. 1-2 (2014): 85-100

Abstract: An enduring criticism of public choice theory is that it does not adequately address the question of power in contemporary capitalist societies. In particular it is argued that the exchange paradigm and the principle of unanimity lead to a conservative defence of the unequal and unjust status quo of such societies. These criticisms are often presented as unanswered and unanswerable. Indeed, public choice scholars have tended to pursue their own research agendas rather than engage such criticisms. This article seeks to make good this lacuna by providing a defence of the public choice account of power. It is shown that within the public choice approach the exchange paradigm and the unanimity principle serve as idealized models against which to judge real world institutional arrangements. As such, these models serve as a basis for critique of contemporary capitalist societies in which all individuals may be subject to predation as a matter of routine. It is shown that the public choice account of power addresses the legitimization and limitation of power, whereas the critics of public choice in effect propose to allocate power to those deemed deserving. Hence, the public choice approach provides a basis for a genuinely consensual politics and exposes the fact that alternative conceptions of politics are fundamentally non-consensual. On this basis it is concluded that the public choice account of power in contemporary capitalist societies is superior to that offered by its critics.