A New Handbook of Political Science

By Robert E. Goodin; Hans-Dieter Klingemann | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Political Institutions: Rational Choice Perspectives

Barry R. Weingast


I Introduction

RATIONAL choice theory provides a distinctive set of approaches to the study of institutions, institutional choice, and the long- term durability of institutions. Rooted in the economic theory of the firm ( Williamson 1985; Milgrom and Roberts 1991), economic history ( North 1990), and positive political theory ( Enelow and Hinich 1984; McKelvey 1976; Riker 1982), this approach provides a systematic treatment of institutions. Although it has much in common with other approaches to institutions, rational choice theory has its distinctive features, most importantly, providing the micro-foundations of institutional analysis.1 Applications range across all political and social problems, from the effects of the major political institutions of the developed West (legislatures, courts, elections, and bureaucracies) to more recent studies of developing countries (for example, corruption, production and exchange, and revolution).

The rational choice approach to institutions can be divided into two separate levels of analysis ( Shepsle 1986). In the first, analysts study their effects, taking institutions as fixed and exogenous. In the second, analysts study why institutions take particular forms, thus allowing institutions to be endogenous. The former analysis is clearly antecedent to the latter and is far more well developed. The latter provides a deeper approach to institutions. In combination, these approaches not only provide a method for analyzing the effects of institutions and social and political interaction, but they provide a means for understanding the long-term evolution and survival of particular institutional forms.

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1
Hall and Taylor ( 1996) review the varied approaches to institutional analysis.

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