Econ 410: Public Choice


Professor Tabarrok

Tel. 993-2314



Office Hours:  T,R 2-4.  I am in Carow Hall most mornings and most afternoons.  Feel free to drop by any time.  Call ahead to guarantee that I will be around.  Email is a good way to get in contact with me.  All students should periodically check their GMU email account for important information.


Grades: Grades will be based on two midterms and a final.  The midterms will be worth 25% each, the final 50%.  If you miss a midterm the remaining midterm will count for 50% of your grade.    


Text:  One text is required for the class as well as a number of readings.  The text is:


Olson, Mancur. 1982. The Rise and Decline of Nations. New Haven. Yale University Press.


A list of readings can be found at the end of the syllabus.  Many readings are available online, through a computer hooked up via the university, and can be easily downloaded by going to the online syllabus on my web page



The grading scale is as follows (where consistent with university policy):


                                                                        A:   85-100% 

                                                                        A-:  80-84%

                                                                        B:   70-79%

                                                                        C:   60-69%

                                                                        D:   50-59%

                                                                        F:    50% -


            Plus-Minuses for B through D grades will occur at the upper and lower 2.5% level.  For example, 70-72.49 will be B-, 72.5-77.49 B, 77.5-79.9 B+ and so forth.

Disabilty Accommodation: If you have a documented learning disability or other condition that may affect academic performance you should: 1) make sure this documentation is on file with Office of Disability Services (SUB I, Rm. 4205; 993-2474; to determine the accommodations you need; and 2) talk with me to discuss your accommodation needs.

Academic Integrity: The integrity of the University community is affected by the individual choices made by each of us. Mason has an Honor Code with clear guidelines regarding academic integrity. Three fundamental and rather simple principles to follow at all times are that: (1) all work submitted be your own; (2) when using the work or ideas of others, including fellow students, give full credit through accurate citations; and (3) if you are uncertain about the ground rules on a particular assignment, ask for clarification. No grade is important enough to justify academic misconduct. Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions, or factual information from another person without giving the person credit. Writers give credit through accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or endnotes. Paraphrased material must also be cited, using MLA or APA format. A simple listing of books or articles is not sufficient. Plagiarism is the equivalent of intellectual robbery and cannot be tolerated in the academic setting. If you have any doubts about what constitutes plagiarism, please see me.

A Rough Guide to the Class





Democratic Pathologies


Gwartney and Wagner (1998)

Baker (1996)

Caplan (2001)


Special Interest Groups and the Rise and Decline of Nations

Why is Rent Seeking so Costly To Growth?

Mancur Olson, chs. 1,2,3,4

Murphy, Shleifer, Vishny (1993) (Video explanation here)


Regulation as Rent Seeking

Peltzman (1989)


Political Business Cycles and Political War Cycles

Grier (1987)

Hess and Orphanides (1995)



Mauro (1995)

Shleifer and Vishny (1993)
Murphy, Shleifer and Vishny (1993)
Doing Business (website)


Famine, Corruption, The Media and Democracy

Sen (1990)

Besley and Burgess (2002)

McMillan and Zoido (2004)

Djankov et al. (2003)

Lott (1999)



Votes vs. Dollars, majority rule


Class Notes


Voting systems – Substantive Effects

a)      Minority Vote Dilution

b)      District vs. at large systems

c)      Runoffs and plurality rule

d)      Gerrymandering

Davidson (1984)

Engstrom and McDonald (1986)


Paradoxes of Voting

a)   Majority rule with pairwise comparisons

a)     Cycling

b)     Cycling Extended and the Seven Dwarfs

c)     Cycling in continuous policy dimensions

d)     Agenda setting and the killer amendment

Paradoxes of Voting


More Paradoxes



The Arrow Impossibility Theorem

Arrow’s Theorem


The Difference a Different Voting System can Make

Tabarrok (2001), Tabarrok and Spector (1999)


Strategic Voting and The Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem

Class Notes

Dixit and Nalebuff (1991)


The Median Voter Theorem 

The Growth of Government

Class Notes

Meltzer and Richards (1981)


Constitutional Economics

Brennan and Buchanan (1980), Chapter 1


“When will a society of free and rational utility maximizing individuals choose to undertake action collectively rather than privately.”

Buchanan and Tullock (1965), Chapters 5 and 6


An application to condominiums

Barzel and Sass (1990)






A Tax Constitiuon or Public Choice versus Public Finance

Brennan and Buchanan (1980), Chapter 3.


Term Limits

Tabarrok (1994)


Court Politics

Helland and Tabarrok (2002)


 Public Choice and Intellectual Property

  Dourado and Tabarrok (2015)

The Big Questions of Development

Engerman and Sokoloff (2001)






Alesina, A., N. Roubini, and G. D. Cohen. 1997. Political cycles in the United States. In Political Cycles and the Macroeconomy, 73-83. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.


Baker, P. 1996. Primarily, Warner's Flush. The Washington Post (31 May):A1,A6.


Barzel, Y., and T. R. Sass. 1990. The Allocation of Resources By Voting. Quarterly Journal of Economics CV (August):745-71.

Besley T. and R. Burgess. 2002. The Political Economy Of Government Responsiveness: Theory And Evidence From India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117 (4):1415-1451.

Brennan, Geoffrey and James M. Buchanan, The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution. Liberty Fund, Inc. 2000. Library of Economics and Liberty. 27 December 2005.


Buchanan, J. M., and G. Tullock. 1965. The Calculus of Consent. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Caplan, Bryan. 2001. Rational Irrationality and the Microfoundations of Political Failure.

Public Choice 107(3/4): 311-331.


Davidson, C. 1984. Minority Vote Dilution: Introduction. Chap. 1 In Minority Vote Dilution, ed. C. Davidson, 1-23. Wash., D.C.: Howard University Press.


Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton & Co.


Dixit, A., and B. Nalebuff. 1991. The strategy of voting. In Thinking Strategically, 259-85. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.


Djankov, S., C. McLiesh, T. Nenova, and A. Shleifer. 2003. Who Owns the Media? Journal of Law and Economics 46(2): 341-381.

Dourado, Eli, and Alex Tabarrok. 2015. “Public Choice Perspectives on Intellectual Property.” Public Choice 163 (1):129–51.


Engerman, Stanley L. and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. 2001. Factor Endowments, Inequality, and Paths of Development among New World Economies. Economia 3.1 (2002) 41-109


Engstrom, R. L., and M. D. McDonald. 1986. The effect of at-large versus district elections on racial representation in the U.S. municipalities. In Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences, ed. B. Grofman and A. Lijphart, 203-25. New York: Agathon Press.


Grier, K. B. 1987. Presidential Elections and Federal Reserve Policy: An Empirical Test. Southern Economic Journal 54 (2):475-86.


---. 1991. Congressional Influence On U.S. Monetary Policy. Journal of Monetary Economics 28:201-20.


Gwartney, J. D., and R. E. Wagner. 1988. Public Choice and the conduct of representative government. In Public Choice and Constitutional Economics, ed. J. D. Gwartney and R. E. Wagner, 3-28. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.


Helland, E. and A. Tabarrok. 2002. The Effect of Electoral Institutions on Tort Awards. American Law and Economics Review 4 (2): 341-370.


Hess, G. D., and A. Orphanides. 1995. War Politics: An Economic, Rational-Voter Framework. American Economic Review 85 (4):828-46.


Lott, John R. Jr. 1999. Public Schooling, Indoctrination, and Totalitarianism. Journal of Political Economy 107 (6) pt. 2: S127-S157.


Mauro, Paolo. 1995. Corruption and Growth. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 110, No. 3. (Aug., 1995), pp. 681-712.

Murphy, K. M., Shleifer, A., & Vishny, R. W. 1993. Why Is Rent-Seeking So Costly to Growth? The American Economic Review, 83(2): 409–414. Retrieved from

Meltzer, A. H., and S. F. Richard. 1981. A Rational Theory of the Size of Government. Journal of Political Economy 89:914-27.


McMillan, John and Pablo Zoido.  2004.  How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru. Journal of Economic Perspectives 18 (4): 69-92.


Parker, F. R. 1984. Racial gerrymandering and legislative reapportionment. In Minority Vote Dilution, ed. C. Davidson, 85-115. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.


Peltzman, S. 1989. The economic theory of regulation after a decade of deregulation. In Brookings Papers On Economic Activity: Microeconomics, ed. M. N. Bailey and C. Winston, 1-41. Wash., D.C.: Brookings Institution.


Persson, T. and G. Tabellini. 1992. Growth, Distribution and Politics. European Economic Review 36:593-602. Reprinted in Persson and Tabellini (1994).


Sen, Amartya. 1990. Public Action to Remedy Hunger. Tanco Memorial Lecture. London.


Tabarrok, A. 1994. A Survey, Critique, and New Defense of Term Limits. Cato Journal 14 (2):333-50.


Tabarrok, Alexander. 2001. President Perot, or Fundamentals of Voting Theory Illustrated with the 1992 Election. Public Choice 106 (3-4): 275-297.


Tabarrok, Alexander. and Lee Spector. 1999. Would the Borda Count have Avoided the Civil War? Journal of Theoretical Politics 11(2): 261-288.