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 might be operationalized and tested—even in principle.” (Green and Shapiro 1994, 6)
The two central questions that I will examine are why and how rational choice theory fails to adequately explain empirical political phenomena. First I will provide an overview of what rational choice theory is and why it has staked such a prominent position in the discipline of political science. In this section I conclude that rational choice theory has indeed developed advanced methodologies at telling us how rational agents should behave. Then in my second section I will show, using the empirical case of the free-rider problem and collective action, as well as the case of suicide terrorism, that rational choice theory cannot adequately account for actual political phenomena. In my third section I will provide some reasons for why this is the case. Finally, in my concluding section I will posit a theoretical framework incorporating some refinements to the assumptions behind rational choice theory that would better aid a predictive (but not universalist) political science.
What is Rational Choice Theory?
Rational choice theory is actually more than one theory per se, but the basic similarities among its variants mean that...