Picking the right way to decide

Rational Choice and Politics
November 24, 2006

This public-choice textbook aims "to give students an insight into the main issues and controversies surrounding the use of rational choice theory (RCT) in politics". It seems that the intended readers are undergraduate students of politics; no previous knowledge of decision theory is assumed.

Stephen Parsons covers most of the main theoretical topics one would expect, but the organisation of the material is haphazard. Chapter one is a very brief introduction to RCT. Chapter two discusses four classic contributions to public choice - those of Anthony Downs, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, Mancur Olson and William Niskanen. Chapter three resumes the introduction to RCT, then discusses two more classic works, by Thomas Schelling and Kenneth Arrow. Chapter four gives brief reviews of a range of significant but disconnected topics in public choice - rational-choice interpretations of Hobbes and Marx, Olson and Douglass North on the evolution of institutions, Downs on spatial politics, electoral systems, Amartya Sen's "paradox of the Paretian liberal", and so on. The final two chapters are less conventional, giving a methodological assessment of public-choice theory.

As a text, this book has serious weaknesses. As most of the literature discussed was written in the 1950s and 1960s, one gains no sense of public choice as a subject of ongoing inquiry. Many politics students will be disappointed to find little discussion of the application of public-choice theory to concrete political situations. Theoretical errors are disturbingly frequent, particularly in relation to game theory (student readers can only be confused when the familiar story of the prisoner's dilemma is rewritten so that confession becomes the co-operative strategy).

Parsons is more surefooted when dealing in methodological critique, but his overwhelmingly negative assessments, whether justified or not, are unlikely to encourage readers to engage more deeply with public-choice theory.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

Rational Choice and Politics: A Critical Introduction. First Edition

Author - Stephen Parsons
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 189
Price - £75.00 and £21.95
ISBN - 0 8264 7721 6 and 7722 4

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