Politics and the Economist-King: Is Rational Choice Theory the Science of Choice?

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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  • 1 Department of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, Email:
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This article is another unapologetic contribution to ‘the gentle art of rational choice bashing’. The debate over rational choice theory (RCT) may appear to have tired out; yet RCT is as dominant in political sciences as ever. The reason is that critics typically take aim at the symptoms of RCT’s failings, rather than their root cause: RCT’s very ambition of being the ‘science of choice’. In this article I argue that RCT fails twice, first as a science ofchoiceand then as ascienceof choice. Both failures suggest that political sciences need an epistemologic (re)conversion away from the Platonic ideal of a deductive and universal science of choice toward a more inductive and pluralist paradigm. While advocates of RCT rightly insist that ‘you can’t beat something with nothing’, I take their advice, with a grain of salt: in order for alternatives to appear, the frame of references needs to be modified. I draw a few perspectives for the political sciences.

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