Rational Choice In Politics Research Paper

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‘Rational choice’ (henceforth RC) is one of the principal approaches to political science as practiced in the USA. The approach has generated important insights relevant to a wide range of political phenomena, but it has also generated controversy as it moved into each of the various subfields. Much of the controversy arises from misunderstandings, as well as a failure to appreciate that RC is not a monolithic enterprise.

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1. The Rational Choice Approach

The central premise uniting the various schools of RC is that behavior is purposive. Political behavior is not the product of psychological drives, childhood socialization, organizational norms, or other a-rational influences stressed by the various schools of behaviorists. Such influences certainly shape individual preferences, but rational choice further posits that individuals pursue their goals as rationally as their knowledge, their resources, and the context permit. For example, much congressional scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s treated members of Congress as acting primarily in response to role expectations and norms established and enforced by other members. Rational choice scholars in the 1970s suggested that a more fundamental starting point would be the presumption that, first and foremost, members of Congress wanted to be re-elected—and acted accordingly. That premise would not describe all members all the time of course, but it would fit more members more of the time than any other assumption, and thus was the most appropriate starting point.

1.1 Origins Of RC

Although RC shares with economics the maintained hypothesis of purposive behavior, RC is not a direct import from economics, as implied by critics who level charges of ‘economic imperialism.’ Some schools of RC owe much to economics, but others have independent roots. Many of the modeling tools first utilized in RC research were borrowed from operations research and other branches of applied mathematics. In particular, political scientists saw potential in game theory earlier than did economists, who continued to use mechanistic maximizing models for some years after RC practitioners in political science had gravitated toward strategic models. The noncooperative game theoretical revolution brought the two groups closer together, but present convergence should not mask the eclectic origins of the approach. Consider that the membership of the Committee on Nonmarket Decision Making (the forerunner of the Public Choice Society) included William Riker, William Mitchell, and Vincent Ostrom (political science), Kenneth Arrow, James Buchanan, and John Harsanyi, (economics), Herbert Simon (then public administration), Gordon Tullock (law), John Rawls (philosophy), and James Coleman (sociology).

1.2 Schools Of RC

There are at least four recognizable schools of RC, although as the approach has spread into the mainstream of political science the distinctions have eroded. The most influential school within political science is the Rochester school, founded by Riker. A product of one of the country’s most traditional political science programs (Harvard); Riker had both dissatisfaction with the state of political science in the middle of the twentieth century and a clear vision of the direction in which it should go. His program at the University of Rochester began producing graduates in the late 1960s and within a decade they had established thriving groups at Carnegie-Mellon, Washington University, and Caltech. Within another decade Rochester graduates and their students had accepted positions at the country’s top political science departments.

In contrast, the Virginia School is based on economics. Led by Buchanan and Tullock this school is most closely identified with the Public Choice Society in particular, and the term ‘public choice’ in general. From the beginning the Virginians emphasized empirical work and especially policy relevant work. Virginians tend to be less abstract in their methods and more focused on outcomes than their Rochester counterparts. And more than Rochester the Virginia School is associated with distinct normative point-of-view, advocating markets as a better means of allocating resources than governments.

The Chicago School is associated most closely with George Stigler and Gary Becker. Reflecting their roots in economics, Chicagoans generally assume that actors’ goals are egoistic and material. This view of humans as selfish wealth maximizers strikes many political scientists as too narrow and has colored nonrational choice political scientists’ views of the larger RC enterprise. In addition, the Chicago School discounts the importance of institutions, believing that rational actors easily find ways to get around institutional constraints. Virginians and Rochesterians, in contrast, take institutions seriously. Virginians focus heavily on constitutional choice and Rochesterians are at the forefront of the ‘new institutionalizm.’ Thus Americanists and comparativists working in rich institutional contexts have found Chicago’s emphasis on freewheeling interest groups less useful than international relations scholars who study an anarchic arena populated by weak institutions.

Finally, the Indiana School is smaller and more specialized. Founded by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, the Indiana School takes as its special focus collective action problems in their various manifestations. Like Rochesterians, Indianans are more of a homegrown school of thought that attaches considerable importance to institutions. They are also more comparative in their orientation, tracking the operation of general principles across space and time.

2. Evolution Of The RC Approach In Political Science

The RC approach first became widespread in the subfield of American politics. Probably this reflects the interests of several of its founders in democratic politics, as well as the fact that the American subfield was the most methodologically advanced and thus the most receptive to the sophisticated modeling tools that RC practitioners brought to the table. The main source of criticism within the subfield was theoretically and conceptually based. In the 1960s the subfield was dominated by behaviorists, who had tried to construct a scientific political science by borrowing concepts and theories from sociology and psychology. From their studies of presidential elections, for example, behaviorists had concluded that the most important determinant of vote choice was party identification, then viewed as largely apolitical—a product of childhood socialization. The RC emphasis on rational, goaloriented behavior seemed highly inconsistent with much of the behavioral literature.

The disruptions of the late 1960s undercut that judgment. As demonstrations raged outside, as an insurgent third candidate—George Wallace—contended for the Presidency, and as long-time Democratic identifiers defected from their party, it became increasingly untenable to assert that people voted on the basis of immutable, apolitical party identifications. RC scholars joined others in refocusing attention on the importance of issues and government performance and re-examined party identification, finding a political component within it.

By the 1980s RC had moved into the subfield of international relations. This was a natural development for the portion of the subfield focused on international economic relations, but natural as well for the international security side of the subfield, for whom coalitions, strategy, rational deterrence, and similar concepts had long been part of their stock in trade. Indeed, much of the early work on game theory and other operations research methods was done at the Rand Corporation with funding from the Department of Defense.

Most recently, RC has been moving into the subfield of comparative politics where its reception has perhaps been more controversial than in the other subfields. Some possible reasons for this contentious debate are offered.

2.1 Criticisms Of RC

A common criticism of RC is that it is a hegemonic research program, not content to coexist with other programs but intent on replacing them. There is some truth to this charge, but it does not apply uniquely to RC—traditionalists leveled the same charge at behaviorists. Emphasizing the volitional element of politics does not require that the non-rational and emotional be ignored. But applying an approach to every possible research question helps scholars to determine its limits.

For example, it seems clear that RC is most directly applicable to the behavior of the elite, whose individual decisions make a difference, than to the behavior of the masses, whose individual decisions are submerged in those of millions of others. Attempts to behave rationally are most likely where the stakes are relatively high and the number of players relatively low—making a careful decision is not worth the effort if the consequences are trivial or your decision makes no difference to the outcome, or both. Thus, RC fails to provide a compelling explanation of why millions of ordinary citizens vote in a presidential elections, but that does not imply that the two presidential candidates do not make every effort to behave rationally!

Others quarrel with the RC approach because it is assertively social scientific. Formalization and generalization are social science ideals, and RC is closely associated with both, although nothing requires that all RC research be expressed in terms of mathematical symbols. Understandably, those who prize detailed narratives of particular cases feel uncomfortable with RC, as do those who believe that a country’s unique history or culture determines the operation of its institutions and political processes. In both cases the critics’ quarrel is as much with social science as with RC.

Of course, even some card-carrying social scientists have qualms about the RC approach. Not everyone views human behavior as purposive. Moreover, RC is more self-consciously theoretical than other approaches. Practitioners engage in model-building, making simplifying assumptions and drawing logical consequences using the classic deductive method. Scholars whose research commitments are inductive and empirical sometimes feel that RC models omit much of the rich detail they have painstakingly compiled.

Finally, some part of the criticism of RC is undoubtedly ideological. Scholars have political commitments, and it is natural, although regrettable, that these commitments sometimes influence their work. As noted, rational choice is associated with a free- market viewpoint. There is nothing inherent in RC that logically requires such a point-of-view. Indeed, there are rational choice scholars who are Democrats, Liberal Democrats even! But the perception exists, and scholars who position themselves more on the social democratic side of the spectrum may criticize the approach because of its perceived ideological associations.

The acrimonious nature of the debates that have accompanied the movement of RC into comparative politics probably reflects the fact that many comparative politics scholars are on the same side of several, if not all, of the preceding divisions. Some comparativists believe in thick description, not parsimonious formal models, and many of these same scholars believe that unique cultural and historical conditions are the key elements of political systems, not timeless underlying principles common to all systems. Some comparativists emphasize the non-rational nature of cultural and historical practices, not rational calculations about means to ends. And finally, some comparativists, especially those who specialize in the developing areas, are personally farther to the left on the political spectrum than Americanists steeped in the liberal tradition and international relations scholars comfortable with discussions of realism and the national interest.

2.2 The Evolution Of RC

In the years to come the controversies surrounding the RC enterprise are likely to diminish. The principal reason is the convergence generated by attempts to explain real world behavior. As noted, RC forced Americanists to reconsider the attempt to explain politics primarily in sociological or psychological terms. But just as clearly, the attempt to explain mass behavior such as political participation indicates that recourse to sociology and psychology will be necessary. Similarly, RC researchers recognize that there are phenomena underlying labels such as ‘cultures’ and ‘norms,’ and provocative current research seeks to explain such phenomena as ‘equilibria’ or ‘focal points’ of human interaction that evolve over time through processes of trial and error, learning, selection, or what-not, and persist if their consequences continue to benefit the community. Trends suggest movement toward a richer RC approach, but also toward political sociology and political psychology with a firmer grounding in first principles of human behavior.


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