Rational choice theory can be defined as the application of economic methods and insights to the study of politics. It can help inform major questions in public policy, including:
- Should we try to get people to change their behaviour, perhaps ‘for their own good’ or to act in the ‘collective’ rather than their own narrow self-interest?
- If so, how? Should we rely on the state to address ‘collective action problems’?
- If so, should we use incentives, coercion, and/ or ‘nudges’ to change behaviour?
In other words, we ask if it is appropriate to change public behaviour and, if so, what means are most effective.
A classic approach is to make some simplifying assumptions – for example, about people’s ability to process information and rank their preferences when making choices – to help us imagine how they might act in particular situations.
For example, people might ‘free ride’ if they can benefit from a good or service without paying for it. This insight underpins the argument that the state must intervene to solve ‘market failure’, such as in the provision of ‘public goods’ (which are ‘non-excludable’, i.e. no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits, and ‘non-rival’, i.e. their use by one person does not diminish their value to another).
Or, people might contribute to Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’: the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks. It is in our collective interest to act collectively to manage such resources, but individual interest to take a little bit more. So, if we all act individually, not collectively, the scarce resource is ruined.
Hardin’s solution to this problem is ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, such as state intervention. He recommends taxation as a good example of a coercive device. However, state intervention is not a panacea and it produces major unintended consequences. So, this recommendation prompts two key discussions that are central to contemporary studies of public policy:
- The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) is a key development
Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work challenges the idea that state intervention is necessarily the best solution to collective action problems. It demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions based on a combination of trust and less coercive means to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (institution). The rules may be enforced by a private authority, and the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect.
- Should we nudge instead of coerce?
Behavioural economics takes insights from psychology to identify the cognitive biases that influence human choice. It has become associated with the idea of ‘nudge’, in which we influence people’s behaviour by exploiting their biases (such as by having them opt-out-of rather than opt-into services, or making it easier to process the information required to make choices).
Take home message for students: don’t just reject rational choice because you read that it uses wackily unrealistic assumptions. Instead, focus on the practical benefits of different ways of thinking. In this case, what issues do these simple models raise? Then note the links between classic and modern studies. Behavioural economics draws insights from psychology to get a better understanding of ‘rational choice’ but you can see the same broad aim to understand how people might act and if we should try to change such action. The IAD also informs the study of state and market failure: can we say with any certainty what governing set-up is best?
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