Public Choice

, Volume 82, Issue 1, pp 37-51

First online:

The political economy of dissonance

  • Gordon L. BradyAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies, Sweet Briar College
  • , J. R. ClarkAffiliated withProbasco Chair of Free Enterprise, The University of Tennesee at Chattanooga
  • , William L. DavisAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, The University of Tennesee, Martin

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Cognitive dissonance is defined as the psychological discomfort or annoyance that may exist when an individual's choice is not consistent with his values and beliefs. Dissonance may cause an individual to reconsider his values and beliefs, enter new choices with different parameters, respond to the constraints imposed, or change his individual preference function. This paper extends Festinger's (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance to the work of public choice theorists and seeks to explain the incentives of the iron triangle to foment and quell dissonance. Examples are provided for specific environmental and health and safety risks.

Akerlof and Dickens (1983) used cognitive dissonance to justify public sector intervention as necessary to correct what they perceived as a market failure in the choice of safety equipment by workers in hazardeus industries. Unlike Akerlof and Dickens (1983), we argue that the concept of cognitive dissonance is applicable to the analysis of public sector decisions giving rise to government failure as well as private decisions involving possible market failure. This paper views the public sector as a market-like arrangement in which dissonance may be produced and exchanged like any other commodity. Cognitive dissonance provides a useful framework for examining individual choice and also expands our understanding of the unseen elements of rent-seeking.