Bryan Caplan  

What Would You Like to See on My Public Choice Syllabus?

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In previous years, I've taught graduate Public Finance I.  In designing the course, I treated "public finance" as a synonym for "public economics" or "economics of government."  So while I spent several weeks discussing bread-and-butter public finance topics like the incidence of taxation and provision of public goods, I spent the last half of the course on my favorite topics: the empirical failure of the self-interested voter hypothesis, the role of ideology, Wittman's critique of traditional public choice, expressive voter, voter irrationality, and the economics of anarchy.

Now I'm switching from Public Finance I to Public Choice II.  Since my Public Finance syllabus was already infused with public choice topics, I don't need to construct a new course from scratch.  I merely need to cut out (a) the bread-and-butter public finance topics, and (b) the public choice topics that my colleague Roger Congleton already covers in Public Choice I.  Then I'll just reorganize my Public Finance I notes, and add some additional public choice material. 

Since this is a second-semester graduate course, it's particularly appropriate to focus on topics at the "research frontier" - areas where there's still lots of room for new, creative research.

So far, here's what I plan to add:

  • a week on dictatorship, including an introduction to the histories of Communism and Nazism.  I'll probably assign Tullock's Autocracy.
  • a week on constitutional solutions to government failure, including a discussion of endogenous institutions
  • a week on anarchy, including an introduction to the major anarcho-capitalist debates in the scholarly literature.  I'll probably assign Ed Stringham's Anarchy and the Law.
This is only a tentative outline.  Any suggestions for topics - great and small - that you'd like to see on the syllabus?   As usual, I'll publish my entire course on my webpage, so you don't have to enroll to benefit from your requests.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
david writes:

A suggestion: some discussion about Green and Shapiro's 1994 book and responses.

In political science, discussions about the application of public choice tend to revolve around this book; it would be odd to walk away from a course on public choice without knowing anything about the big fight that has been going on in the next department on the same topic.

James D. Miller writes:

Public choice problems in Africa. How much of Africa's relative poverty can they explaine. Why are African governments worse than the governments of the rest of the world. (See the Shackled Continent).

Why the Roman Republic Fell. (Start with Sulla's dictatorship.)

How the existence of public choice problems complicates economists' solutions to externality problems.

Federalist Number 10.

Phil writes:

If you're interested in a book on public opinion during war, two alternatives to Althouse would be Gelpi Feaver and Reifler and Berinsky.

Joshua Lyle writes:

This is only tenuously related, but, speaking of Autocracy, do you (or any of the commentariat) know of any modern public choice informed analysis of the Machiavelli's Prince and/or Commentaries?

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Arrow's Possibility Theorem is a must. Arrow got the Nobel Prize for proving two things: that aggregating preferences over competitive markets lead to a general equilibrium, and that aggregating preferences in political markets cannot establish a stable equilibrium. Graduate economics teaches the former, but seldom the latter. Arrow, in his Nobel lecture (in the AER), puzzled over the neglect his public choice work had suffered, and wondered when it would be picked up again. Give him a hand, will you?

david writes:

@Carl The EconGuy

Seriously? I've seen his impossibility result in first-year undergraduate courses. How on earth do you introduce welfare economics without it?

I note that it's already in Congleton's course (linked in Caplan's post), though.

Alex J. writes:

You might consider David Friedman's course, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours.

ao writes:

How about doing an audio or video recording of your lectures?

Stephan writes:

"The Anatomy of Fascism" by Robert O. Paxton. More relevant for modern society than musings about Nazis.

Scott Wentland writes:

Along with your Nazi and Communism discussion, you might want to include public choice applications to terrorism (there was a fairly recent issue of Public Choice devoted to this).

Public choice aspects of wealth redistribution could be a good topic to cover too. There are some good pieces by Tullock (e.g. The Charity of the Uncharitable; The Rhetoric and Reality of Redistribution), Buchanan, and a lot of the big names in public choice.

Either way, it looks like this is shaping up to be a great course.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

You haven't included anything by Anthony de Jasay? You wouldn't really do that to your students would you?

Josh Hall writes:


I would suggest that you check out Russ Sobel's syllabus.

Section 8B on the growth of government might have some useful cites, for example.

From the perspective of helping students transition from student of public choice to scholar of public choice, what I really found useful about Russ's syllabus was how he could walk you through how his work built off the previous research. This is perhaps clearest with his research in section 5A.

So I would urge you to show how your work is responding to questions you had after reading the literature. You do this very well in the Myth of the Rational Voter and you could also do that with your idea trap paper and tiebout paper.

Good luck!

Patri Friedman writes:

Mancur Olson - The Logic of Collective Action & The Rise And Decline of Nations. Totally awesome public choice demonstrations of the problems of democracy, with both theoretical arguments and empirical evidence.

David Friedman writes:

You might want to have them read my first published article--"A Theory of the Size and Shape of Nations."

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