Now to something completely different: Political Economy.
Besley’s “Principled Agents?” is an attempt to unify a number of different principal agent models concerning the political decision maker, government, and voters. He discusses competing views of government and government failures, he analysis the effects of accountability, he analyses the impact of the political agency on public finance. And he does all this in a way that, I would argue, even an undergraduate would be able to follow and enjoy. He succeeds very well in this attempt to unify the general frame of his analyses.
Another distinctive feature of “Principled Agents?” is that it presents its analyses not only in a unified frame but it also takes a less extreme approach to the analysis of government than either the Samuelsonian welfare economics or the overly pessimistic public choice approach of Buchanan. Not all government officials are purely benevolent, not all government officials follow only their own interest.
What stopped me in my tracks, however, was his Final Comments. In the Final Comments Besley hints at interesting extensions. Among other things, he implicitly questions the institution of elections, at least for some level and part of government.
Once, the city states of Athens, Venice, and Florence have used lotteries instead of elections to select their councils. Do elections really select the best person for the job? Do we need to select “a best” person for such a position, with the selection always being tainted by imperfection? Should we not rather re-think the duties of the bureaucrat and the politician? Do we want a political elite, distinct from the general population, or do we want to maintain a unity of purpose, an egalitarian access, the widest possible access to public office? All questions that, I believe, are worthwhile to think about.