Public Choice: An Introduction

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Public Choice has been defined as the application of the methodology of economics to the study of politics. This definition suggests that public choice is an inherently interdisciplinary field, and so it is. Depending upon which person one selects as making the pioneering contribution to public choice, it came into existence either in the late 18th century as an offshoot of mathematics, or in the late 1940s as an offshoot of economics. The case for the earlier date rests on the existence of publications by two French mathematicians, J.C. de Borda (1781) and M. de Condorcet (1785). Condorcet was the first person, as far as we know, to discover the problem of cycling, the possibility when using the simple majority rule that an alternative x can lose to y in a vote between the two, y can lose to another alternative z, but z will also lose to x. The existence of such a possibility obviously raises the issue of how a community can decide among these three alternatives, when a cycle exists, and what the normative justification for any choice made will be. No cycle exists, of course, if some alternative, say y, can defeat both x and z. The literature has commemorated Condorcet’s contribution by naming such an issue like y a Condorcet winner. A vast number of papers and books have analyzed both the normative and positive implications of the existence of cycles.

This chapter is a revised and updated version of an essay that first appeared in The Encyclopedia of Public Choice edited by Charles K. Rowley and Friedrich Schneider and published in 2004 by Kluwer Academic Publishers, Volume 1, pp. 32–48.