Formal Rational Choice Theory: A Cumulative Science of Politics
David Lalman, Joe Oppenheimer, and Piotr Swistak
Formal political theory is commonly described as the analysis of rational choices and their aggregate consequences in non-market contexts. It resembles economic analysis which is concerned with rational behaviors in market contexts. In other words, the two fields share the same set of assumptions concerning individual choice. Hence they overlap methodologically and differ primarily in the contexts in which the choices are made. Whether the individual is considered as citizen or consumer, he is viewed as consistent in his behaviors. Homo politicus has rejoined homo economicus.
Early contributions to the area were made by researchers trained outside political science. 1 William Riker ( 1958, 1962) was one of the first in our discipline to recognize the importance of the approach for the understanding of politics. Increasing numbers of political scientists followed his lead. For more than a quarter century, the body of formal results and their empirical tests have grown steadily. A number of Nobel prizes awarded for work in the field have brought publicity and encouragement. 2 By now, the field of formal theory (a.k.a. positive theory, public choice, and collective choice) has grown into a major area of research in our discipline. Leading journals such as the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution devote a substantial proportion of their pages to formal analyses of political processes. 3 The number of textbooks available at the graduate level has increased substantially over the last decade; many deal specifically with political applications. 4
We recognize that a record of growth and success is not a sufficient recommendation; it certainly does not substitute for careful evaluation. In this essay, we try to describe in what ways formal theory has influenced our thinking about politics.
Our presentation is intended as an introduction for the sophisticated student of political science who may be untrained in deductive methods but who is nonetheless willing to handle abstractions. Our goal is to give the unfamiliar reader a set of simple yet firm intuitions about how formal theories advance our understanding of politics. We do not attempt to cover the field in its entirety. Social choice theory, for example, is not discussed explicitly. Rather, in the interest of portraying the methodological and epistemological factors which have contributed to the field's success, we have chosen to construct this essay around three major substantive areas: voting, collective action, and coalitional stability. Each is discussed separately, even though much of the analysis is in fact interrelated. This is not to say that the discussion is limited to the three areas. We also touch upon the uses of the rational choice approach in other areas such as institutional design, public policy analysis, and political philosophy.
As compared to many fields of specialization within political science, formal theory is unusual. Formal theorists work neither on a particular set of institutions nor on a substantively defined set of political problems. Instead, they often purport to know something specific about what is going on in each of the widely ranging institutional contexts throughout the discipline.
A second distinctive feature of rational choice research is that it is often mathematical. What is more, over the decades much of the mathematics has been refined in its content and reified in its presentation. Today, even for the mathematician, a great deal of technical skill may be needed to comprehend papers in the field. And even with the mathematician's technical advantages, a great deal of reflection is required to comprehend the "political" content of the formulations and their solutions. Unfortunately, these are barriers to entry to anyone wishing to appreciate what has been produced in the field.