Explaining Self‐Interested Behavior of Public‐Spirited Policy Makers

Date01 July 2018
Published date01 July 2018
Explaining Self-Interested Behavior of Public-Spirited Policy Makers 579
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 4, pp. 579–592. © 2017 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12825.
Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan is senior
lecturer in the Department of Political
Science and the School of Public Policy
at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
where he heads the Cognition and Policy
Research Group. He also co-heads the
Proportionality in Policy project at the
Israeli Democracy Institute. His interests
include political psychology, behavioral
public administration, and empirical legal
studies, and his recent research examines
the electoral effects of judicial decisions.
E-mail : raanan.s-k@mail.huji.ac.il
Eyal Zamir is Augusto Levi Professor of
Commercial Law at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem and a member of the Center
for Empirical Studies of Decision-Making
and the Law. His research interests include
economic and behavioral analysis of law,
empirical legal studies, contract law and
theory, and normative ethics and law.
E-mail : eyal.zamir@mail.huji.ac.il
Abstract: Public choice theory (PCT) has had a powerful influence on political science and, to a lesser extent, public
administration. Based on the premise that public officials are rational maximizers of their own utility, PCT has a
quite successful record of correctly predicting governmental decisions and policies. This success is puzzling in light of
behavioral findings showing that officials do not necessarily seek to maximize their own utility. Drawing on recent
advances in behavioral ethics, this article offers a new behavioral foundation for PCT s predictions by delineating
the psychological processes that lead well-intentioned people to violate moral and social norms. It reviews the relevant
findings of behavioral ethics, analyzes their theoretical and policy implications for officials decision making, and sets
an agenda for future research.
Evidence for Practice
Ethical behavior is driven both by self-interest and by norms. Thus, officeholders tend to breach norms only
to the extent that they can maintain their self-image as honest people.
Public officeholders may act in self-interested ways because of automatic and unconscious motivations rather
than deliberate and conscious calculations.
The clearer it is to an officeholder that his or her interests diverge from those of the public at large, the less
likely he or she is to give precedence to the former.
Officeholders can recollect decisions they took that clearly promoted the public interest more easily than
their self-interested decisions.
Eyal Zamir
Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Explaining Self-Interested Behavior of Public-Spirited
Policy Makers
A major development in political science and, to
a lesser extent, in public administration
research during the second half of the
twentieth century was the rise of public choice
theory (PCT). PCT introduced standard economic
assumptions about human behavior into analyses of
political and administrative processes (Ostrom and
Ostrom 1971 ; Tullock, Seldon, and Brady 2002 ). In
line with the assumptions of rational choice theory,
PCT assumes that public officials, both elected and
unelected, are rational maximizers of their utility.
Economic rationality consists of both cognitive and
motivational components. Cognitive rationality
presupposes that people s preferences and decision-
making strategies comply with certain formal
requirements, such as completeness and transitivity
of preferences; consideration of all available, relevant
information; and exclusion of irrelevant information.
Motivational rationality adds to that the premise that
people are self-interested. That is, when choosing
among alternatives, they always choose the one that
is expected to yield the greatest benefit to them. This
premise rules out both true altruism and commitment
to nonselfish ideals (Green and Shapiro 1996 , 18).
In recent decades, both sets of assumptions have been
challenged by a growing body of experimental and
observational studies by psychologists, economists,
and political scientists that cast doubt on the premise
of cognitive rationality by showing that people s
preferences and choices often fail to meet requirements
such as dominance, transitivity, and invariance. The
heuristics-and-biases literature has demonstrated that
people s choices deviate from these assumptions in
systematic and predictable ways (Baron 2008 ; Keren
and Wu 2015 ). Based on this literature, it has been
argued that many suboptimal governmental decisions
are attributable not to the economic rationality of
public officials but to their bounded rationality (Lucas
and Tasic 2015 ; Rachliski and Farina 2002 ; Simon
1972 ). Other studies have called into question the
premise of motivational rationality by pointing to
the role of other motivations, such as envy, altruism,
and concerns about fairness and reciprocity (for an
overview, see Gächter 2014 ). Accordingly, many
suggestions have been made to qualify, supplement,
and improve PCT by introducing more nuanced
assumptions about policy makers motivation and
cognitive ability (e.g., Jones 2001 ; Ostrom 1998 ).
Research Article

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