Rational Choice Theory in Political Science

Powerful Essays
Rational Choice Theory in Political Science

According to one of rational choice theory’s prominent and more thoughtful contemporary exponents, Peter C. Ordeshook, “four books mark the beginning of modern political theory: Anthony Downs’s An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), Duncan Black’s Theory of Committees and Elections (1958), William H. Riker’s A Theory of Political Coalitions (1962), and James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent (1962). These volumes, along with Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), began such a wealth of research that political scientists today have difficulty digesting and synthesizing all but small parts of it. Consequently, the full value of this research often goes unrealized…” (Ordeshook 1986, ix)

In this essay I will argue that, contrary to Ordeshook’s claim, the “full value of this research” has actually been overstated; not for the lack of profundity in the assumptions and certain selected observations contained in the literature mentioned above, but for the failure of rational choice theory in explaining political phenomena empirically. This failure can be understood in terms of the fallacies associated with rational choice theory’s predictive and universalist aspirations, as well as in terms of the methodological misuse of the basic assumptions of rational choice theory when actually used in explanatory frameworks. As Donald Green and Ian Shapiro argue, the weaknesses of rational choice scholarship are rooted in the aspiration of rational choice theorists to come up with universal theories of politics, “which leads many rational choice theorists to pursue even more subtle forms of theory elaboration, with little attention to how these theories m...

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...tional Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered. New Haven: Yale University Press

Green, Donald P. and Ian Shapiro. 1994. Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press

Green, Donald P. and Ian Shapiro. 1996. “Pathologies Revisited: Reflections on Our Critics.” In The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered, ed. Jeffrey Friedman. New Haven: Yale University Press

Miller, Byron. 1992. “Collective Action and Rational Choice: Place, Community, and the Limits to Individual Self-Interest.” Economic Geography 68:1, 22-42

Ordeshook, Peter C. 1986. Game Theory and Political Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press

Shapiro, Ian. 1998. “Can the Rational Choice Framework Cope with Culture?” PS: Political Science and Politics 31:1, 40-42
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