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Rational Actor Models in Political Science


  • Vani K. Borooah



There can be little doubt that Rational Choice Theory (RCT) - with its emphasis on the 'instrumentally rational' individual as the foundation of the political process - has significantly enhanced the scope of political science. This paper details many of the areas of political science in which our understanding of events has been significantly enhanced by the application of RCT. But, in the end, RCT in political science raises the same questions that it does in economics. These essentially stem from the fact that for RCT, whether in economics or in political science, choice and preference are regarded as synonymous. In consequence, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, no attention is paid to the motivation underlying an action. As Leif Johansen - one of the giants of public sector economics - expressed it: "economic theory in this, as well as in some other fields, tends to suggest that people are honest only to the extent they have economic incentives for being so. This is a homo economicus assumption which is far from being obviously true". In RCT models, a person is given one preference ordering and, when all is said and done, this preference ordering represents his Weltanschauung. Can one preference ordering do all this? The argument of this paper is that no society can be viable without some norms and rules of conduct. Such norms and rules are necessary for viability in fields where strict economic incentives are absent and cannot be created.

Suggested Citation

  • Vani K. Borooah, 2002. "Rational Actor Models in Political Science," ICER Working Papers 20-2002, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  • Handle: RePEc:icr:wpicer:20-2002

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