The Elgar Companion to Public Choice, Second Edition
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The Elgar Companion to Public Choice, Second Edition

Edited by William F. Shughart II, Laura Razzolini and Michael Reksulak

The Companion lays out a comprehensive history of the field and, in five additional parts, it explores public choice contributions to the study of the origins of the state, the organization of political activity, the analysis of decision-making in non-market institutions, the examination of tribal governance and to modeling and predicting the behavior of international organizations and transnational terrorism.
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Chapter 12: Tribal systems

Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Olumide Taiwo


A primary tenet of public choice theory is the seemingly simple idea that individuals interacting in the public sector seek to maximize their own utilities just as they do in the private markets. In essence, self-interest is hardwired into all individuals’ preference functions and thus the idea that public officials seek to maximize some nebulous public interest in the course of undertaking their public duties is not consistent with the utility maximization assumption. Extending the self-interest assumption to political markets provides powerful insights into the behavior of individuals in their capacities as voters, elected officials or bureaucrats. But if self-interest is hardwired, then it must also be the case that actors in all political systems – including traditional or very primitive systems – are motivated by the same goals. Thus, just as elected politicians in democracies seek to extend their tenures in office, we would also expect the behavior of kings, military dictators or tribal leaders to have similar motivations. The means and strategies for remaining in leadership positions may vary but the reasons for doing so are similar and consistent with self-interest. Likewise, as civil servants in Western democracies seek to maximize the budgets under their control, so would their counterparts in developing countries or those holding similar positions in simple societies. In other words, any differences that we may observe in how individuals behave in different political systems are due only to different institutional constraints, not differences in the utility functions of the actors.

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