Customer Reviews: Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science
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on May 23, 2000
As a believer in rational choice theory I believe this to be a useful book. Formal theorists in political science can benefit from its suggestion of research avenues that others in the profession would find interesting. They can also benefit from a better understanding of the threat some corners of political science perceive from the formal techniques of rational choice.
Reports of formal theory's death are greatly exaggerated. Non-formal types must keep that in mind as they read this, half of the "debate." Political science is a pluralistic discipline, and rational choice is here to stay. One need only examine article counts by subfield in any leading journal to conclude that.
Reading G&S's highly selective account of RC scholarship may suggest that that's a shame. The selectiveness of their account responsible for that is one of the drawbacks of the book. Empirically-motivated rational choice work is largely ignored. The fascinating RC-led debates on legislative organization, and the sources of party power, are not treated.
The approach of G&S is simply to look at some areas that have been problematic for RC, like voter turnout. The picture this paints of RC in general is nothing but an exercise in selection bias. As such the review is not exactly a balanced account.
That is to say nothing of the review they actually present, which in many ways is simply inadequate. For example, G&S would seem to believe that collective action problems are all "dilemma"-like situations leading to mutual non-contribution. In reviewing turnout they seem completely unaware of game theoretic models leading to positive turnout.
One common insult levied by anti-formal types is the "pseudoscience" card. If the derivation of testable hypotheses from logical analysis of carefully stated assumptions, and the confrontation of those hypotheses with data, is pseudoscientific, then formal theorists are guilty. But it seems to me that this approach may be the best way to make political science deserving of both halves of its name. At some point non-formal types ought to realize there's more to rational choice than the infamous Riker-Ordeshook "D term."
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on March 1, 1997
Whether you are a hard-core believer in RC theory or the most outspoken opponent of it, Green and Shapiro provide a provactive, well-researched examination of the ability of rational choice theory to explain political behavior. While decidedly anti-RC in their discussions, it is of immense value to those of us who favor rational choice theory as well. We need to face the facts (occasionally!) and give serious consideration to the shortfalls outlined in this book. In many ways, it presents RC theory in political science with a complete research agenda for the next decade, albeit unwittingly
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on June 12, 2007
The authors identify three major rational choice theorists, Arrow, Downs, and Olson, and argue that there has been little empirical support for the application of their approach to political theory. The authors correctly identify two types of rational agent theory, "thin" and "thick." The former represents the agent of decision theory, as modeled by Savage and others. The latter represents the rational actor of economic theory: self-regarding, pursuing materialistic goals, an omniscient decision-maker, and the like. The critique in this book covers both.

The authors did not compare the relative power of rational choice theory with its alternatives in dealing with various political phenomena. Rather, they evaluate the inadequacies of the rational choice approach in absolute terms. This is a common error, and could easily have been avoided. Moreover, their general critique is that there has been little empirical work generated by rational choice theory. This is an interesting fact, if true. But, it would have been useful to suggest where the rational choice approach is correct or incorrect when it has been tested as well.

The authors try to maintain a balanced demeanor, but the title of the book undermines any attempted show of objectivity. "Pathologies" does not set the tone for measured judgment. Nor are the judgments measured. They are extravagant, but delivered dispassionately.

The standard "thick" rational choice model of voter behavior seriously conflicts with the evidence. This model assumes rational agents are self-regarding. However, the selfish rational actor would not vote, and if he did, he would conform to Downs' median voter model. Many people vote, and the median voter model is a poor predictor. The authors do not present this evidence (e.g., concerning voting on the welfare state and other redistributional measures). Indeed, they show little evidence of being knowledgeable in the literature, which is strange given their task in this volume.

A major application of the rational choice model is to defining and analyzing power, using game theory (the "thin" conception of rationality). The authors do not even touch upon this critically important literature. It is difficult to take these authors seriously, given the gaps in their knowledge.

The authors are critical of Olson's model of social dilemmas, but they slight the phenomenally important work of Elinor Ostrom and coworkers in showing that communities often develop effective strategies for managing the commons by successfully solving the free rider problem. Ostrom's work is squarely in the rational choice tradition (including the use of game theory, a careful attention to incentives and informational issues, and the use of laboratory and field experiments). Ostrom's work is a triumph of rational choice theory (thin variety).

As an attempt at balanced assessment, this book does not succeed, but if it encourages researchers to engage in more empirical testing and to devise alternatives to existing theories, it will have served a good purpose.
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on January 1, 2010
The authors are correct that rational choice theory is flawed and limited in its ability to explain voter and legislator behavior.However,they do not use the best sources available to critique this approach.They needed to (a)clearly cover the founding father of rational choice theory,Jeremy Bentham, as it pertains to the political process, voting,and legislative decision making,in much greater depth,as well as to (b) demonstrate the general defects in the information and knowledge assumptions of Benthamite Utilitarianism that were implicitly pointed out by J M Keynes in his A Treatise on Probability (1921;TP) regarding voters who are faced with the problems of conflicting information,uncertainty ,and ignorance in attempting to make political choices when voting .

The authors attempt to cover Jeremy Bentham in a few sentences in their book.They seem to be aware that rational choice theory was started by Bentham,but seem to be unaware of the great influence Bentham has,either directly or indirectly,in this area.Bentham rejected any political theory based on concepts of " natural law " or " natural rights ".For instance,Bentham viewed the American Declaration of Independence as total and complete nonsense.Instead,he sought to replace this with his concept of utility ,combined with his claims that all decision makers are able to figure the odds (calculate the risk)involved in a set of alternative choices and choose the optimal one that will maximize their expected utility.Bentham's arguments are all laid out carefully in his 1789 book, " Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation ".Bentham is very clear that his utility maximizing approach is also to be explicitly applied in the political arena where voters political preferences and legislator's political preferences take the place of the economic preferences of rational economic man.Bentham's operating motto, " the greatest good for the greatest number ",demonstrates a bias for pure democracy,as opposed to the American republican form of democracy that seeks to prevent the tyranny of the majority.It finds its expression in the goal of maximizing a Social Welfare Function representing social preferences.Two of Arrow's five axioms(Arrow showed that there is no social preference function that would,in general, satisfy all 5 of his axioms), the complete ordering of all social preferences and the independence of irrelevant alternatives,can only exist under information assumptions that require that the weight of the evidence,w,is equal to 1 where w is defined on the unit interval from 0 to 1.This same problem also limits the applicablity of Subjective Expected Utility (SEU) theory in purely economic decision making.J M Keynes developed the weight of the evidence index in the TP to measure the reliabilty and/or completeness of the evidence supporting a probability estimate.Bentham's calculus of decision making requires a w=1 .This would mean that there is no uncertainty ,ignorance,or ambiguity facing the voter/politician.Each voter or politician could calculate the risks of voting for different political positions and maximize his utility.

Political decision making and voting involves decision making under conditions of conflicting evidence ,first emphasized by Keynes in chapter III of the TP,and incomplete,ambiguous,unclear,uncertain knowledge and information.This essentially leads to the argument that voters and legislators seek a satisfactory,half of a loaf, political outcome only.The existing system of lobbying,compromising and vote trading by legislators in order to pass legislation was ,in fact, exactly the type of behavior that the founding fathers envisioned taking place in the political arena.The rational choice approach is a special case with limited applicability in economics, social science,political theory,politics,etc.
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on June 1, 2011
As a graduate student in political science, I was assigned this book for the Scope and Methods seminar. In the interest of full disclosure, I do consider myself a proponent of the rational choice model as a sound and well-articulated baseline from which to formulate clear social science theory but am by no means an all-out Kool Aid-drinker who worships Riker, McKelvey, Shepsle, etc. Instead, my allegiance to the RC school of thought stems from the problem that is epitomized by this book; by this I mean that for all the sound and fury that we've seen unleashed against RC from the proponents of the utterly ill-defined and atheoretical "political culture" school of thought, RC's critics haven't even come close to offering up a competiting framework from whcih to build social science theories or conduct social science inquiry. By obsessively focusing on "empirical performance" of RC-based theories, Green and Shapiro miss the larger point of what RC is supposed to accomplish. In fairness, however, their misplaced "empirical performance" argument against RC is given credibility by the willingness of people like Krehbiel, Cox and McCubbins to actually accept the terms of Green and Shapiro's hollow criticism. In any case, for a more thorough and damning assessment of this book, I refer readers to this review: [...]
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on May 11, 2000
This book is an excellent debunking of the rat choice cult and its high priests. By using rat choices own methodologies, Green and Shapiro prove that the cult has been a monumental waste of time and highly destructive in pol sci/IR. A timely book that (hopefully) will kill off the pseudo-scientific pretensions of the cultists and open up the discipline to more informative approaches and theories. One can but hope that the cult's grip on hiring practices is about to be loosened.
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