Rational Choice is not our Maximum Utility

Rational Choice Theory (RCT) is the overambitious little brother of International Relations’ Realist theory. It applies the same key assumptions of behaviour: rationality and self-interest. It reminds us that the plausibility of these assumptions can be challenged, but the argument for their mathematical or economic utility will knock over your grandma; it will be indiscriminate and full throttled in its forcefulness. As a theory, this  one embodies the notion that the simplest explanation is often the correct one.  However, to me, RCT is the simplicity beyond logic. It seems to be at the level of explaining fire hydrants are red because they want to be, rather than because they are brightly coloured to be easily accessible in an emergency. 
The common criticism of RCT is that its application involves incentives and desires, which themselves are not rational. However, this assertion implies an uncomfortable reality where rationality is inextricably linked to traditionally western values such as limited in-group bias, strict economic concepts of utility and incentivisation  and the most uneasy (and slightly White-Christian-colonial-feeling) predication that there is a sole rationality, and a sole or prima facie rational response to any given circumstance.  This might fit snugly into economics, particularly finance, as a study of a facet of society defined by a particular potential incentive; it does does not and should not fit into political science as a study of human relationships, and particularly power.
The true reason RC fails is not incentives and desires are not always rational, nor even that it fails to predict choice where desires can be optimally fulfilled through  more than one route. Rational Choice fails because individual experience varies widely and is not aggregable down to uniform aims and desires, nor uniform methods of fulfillment. In order to apply rational choice, accurate and detailed analyses must be made of the perceptions, priorities and morals of actors. Is rational choice actually a psychological approach? No. It has made little effort to shift with or take into account the change in social and political culture since its heyday in the 1980s, from the Thatcher-Reagan laissez faire, trickle down economics to a more social democratic, centrist culture. 
Some RC theorists contest this failure by pointing out the advent of “bounded rationality”: rationality with a limited capacity to receive, store, transmit and act upon information. However the only achievement of the concept of bounded rationality is to add to the accusation that RCT is simply a restatement of common sense. Obviously, proponents of RCT intend it to involve the use of common sense and simplification of social conditions to mathematically predict political action. In their renowned critique of Rational Choice Theory, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (1994), Green and Shapiro noted that the main reason for RC’s poor empirical record was the mismatch between theory and application. To me, this reflects again the implausibility of the detailed analysis needed to discuss with remote accuracy the divergence of human experience. Hindmoor in his qualified defence of rational choice in Marsh and Stoker (2010) says that “simple theories … are attractive because they allow us to explain something without knowing everything …[because] they are simplifications which offer a great deal of explanatory leverage”. Any logician or person with a grasp of research method will tell you though, that correlation is not persuasive. Further, explaining something without knowing everything fits squarely into rational choice’s key failing – you don’t know what you don’t know.

Following neatly on: does rational choice defend ignorance? Some RC theorists hypothesise that the electorate don’t vote because it is not in their rational interest to invest in becoming informed, partially due to the time and effort that involves and additionally due to this combined with the probability of their vote making a difference. Further, many RC theorists have discussed the lack of incentive around knowledge.  Popkin in his 1995 work notes “time spent deciding where to travel leads to better vacations, whereas time spent evaluating … policies tends not to lead to better policies but only a better-informed vote”. Should we reject it on such strong normative grounds? For me, this is pretty convincing. 

So, for this student of IR, Rational Choice Theory is an interation of common sense which reminds us of the limitations of the human condition, but is basic and explanatory rather than helpful in our study. Rational Choice Theory may be sound, but like Green and Shapiro I believe its application to be highly problematic at best. It sits with IR Realism as a dominant but damaging theory for the culture of International Relations practice, and further sits as an example of how theory in social science can shape the world, and should sometimes be criticised for that exact reason. 

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