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Brennan and Hamlin: Democratic devices and desires

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Brennan and Hamlin. 2000. Democratic devices and desires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapter 2

In Brief

Main argument: Motivations that are relevant in market contexts, like self-interest, may be less relevant in politics, where moral considerations, like concern for the public interest, dominate.


The authors argue that rational choice approaches to politics, like public choice theory, tend to make two assumptions about actors' motivations--they are rational, and they are egoistic. Brennan and Hamlin think the latter assumption is wrong, though the former is qualifiedly true, in Rawls' sense: rationality imposes a structural connection between the individual's desires, beliefs and actions, but does not speak to the substantive content of her desires and beliefs or motivations.

Brennan and Hamlin replace the assumption of egoism with an assumption of competing motivations, including both narrow self-interest and moral considerations. These motivations weigh against one another and often conflict; moreover, they are not configured identically in everyone. But, argue B&H, in the political realm, the need for justification makes moral motivations disproportionately significant.

Argument and Discussion

Public choice theory criticizes economics on the grounds of its "benevolent despot" assumption. That is, classical economics assumes that political agents are motivated solely by a desire to promote the public interest (benevolence) and that they can act benevolently, i.e. they have no political constraints keeping them from doing so (despotism). This is implausible because it requires a split personality--selfish in markets, altruistic in government--or else two separate types of people.

The rejoinder is: yes, but, a good government operates under an "invisible hand" mechanism. That is, even though political actors act selfishly, the system enables this to maximally promote the general welfare. (For a sample of this argument, see Olson (2000).

Main critique of public choice: B&H reply that in the world of homo economicus it would not make much sense to talk about the "general welfare" that the invisible hand is supposed to promote. Since in this world "good" just means "good for me," the very idea of the public interest is null, since there is no separate normative category. In justifying our actions, all we can do is appeal to our self-interested motivations; we cannot give reasons or justifications in a normative mode, as no such mode is available.

Nor can the "veil of ignorance" help us. Even if we accept that, behind the veil, a self-interested actor is compelled to choose that set of rules (that constitution) which promotes some maximal average good, there remains no reason for him to prefer this mode of decision-making to the action level. To make this choice implies a normative decision.

Nor, again, does the appeal to Pareto criterion help. The idea is that social state A is preferable to social state B iff everyone is at least as well off in A as B. But the accepting this criterion implies a normative choice that cannot be made in the world of homo economicus.

So B&H propose a moral motivation, described as a modest commitment to some definition of the public interest. This provides individuals motivation both to promote the constitutional level of decision-making and to pay attention to the rules adopted in this mode.

Any normative analysis must be committed to the ideas that agents can comprehend the logic of justification, and that the audience is inclined to respond appropriately to the force of normative reasoning.

So the public choice criticism above holds, only rather than assuming extreme selfishness as a solution, B&H assume a more moderate, heterogeneous approach, which privileges other-regarding preferences in the political arena, and self-regarding preferences in the market, but does so differentially, under the assumption that peoples' underlying motivations are themselves heterogeneous. Moreover, individuals with particularly strong moral motivations will tend to gravitate toward politics, while selfish people will enter the logic of the market.

The link between justification and motivation is partial and indirect. Their model is that of morality as one desire among many, explaining why people do not always act morally. However, in the political realm, moral motivations are paramount.

Systematically different desires are engaged in political and market contexts.

Voting is primarily an expressive act. The gesture of choosing the morally correct alternative can outweigh the instrumental cost even of voting for a policy that is to one's economic disadvantage, since one's vote has so little effect in the outcome anyway. Voting is more like a speech-act than an idealized market in which my decisions affect me privately.


Homo economicus cannot simply be transposed from the market into the political arena, because political motivations are moral, inasmuch as we are forced to justify them in terms of the public good, while economic motivations are private and self-interested. It is nearly as egregious to presume purely selfish motivations as purely altruistic ones; rather, motivations are weighed against one another differentially, depending on the individual and the context in question.