Rational choice institutionalism

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Rational Choice Institutionalism (RCI) is a theoretical approach to the study of institutions arguing that actors use institutions to maximize their utility.[1] However, actors face rule-based constraints provided by the institutional environment which influence their behaviour. Rational Choice Institutionalism arose initially from the study of congressional behaviour in the U.S. in the late 1970s.[2] It employs analytical tools borrowed from neo-classical economics to explain how institutions are created, the behaviour of political actors within it, and the outcome of strategic interaction.

RCI explains the creation of institutions as an attempt to reduce transaction costs of collective activity which would be significantly higher without such institutions.[3] Institutions persist after their creation because they reduce uncertainty and allow gains from exchange. Rational Choice Institutionalism assumes that political actors within the institutional setting have a fixed set of preferences. To maximize those preferences actors behave highly instrumental through systematic foresight and strategic cost-benefit calculation.[4] Institutions lay down the 'rules of the game', define the range of available strategies and the sequence of alternatives. The actors' behaviour will be highly influenced by the expectation how other players will bargain. The institutional environment provides information and enforcement mechanism that reduce uncertainty for each actor about the corresponding behaviour of others.[5] This 'calculus approach' explains how the institutional setting influences individual behaviour and stresses how strategic interaction determines policy outcomes.

Georgetown University political scientist Erik Voeten writes that the strength of RCI approaches to institutions is that they allow "us to think about what institutions should look like if they were designed to optimally improve cooperation. This provides a normative benchmark."[6] He argues that alternative perspectives cannot compete with RCI in terms of "its range of testable and generalizable implications."[6]

Definition of institutions[edit]

RCI scholars tend to define institutions as "rules of the game". These rules structure the incentives of actors, and thus alters their behavior. One prominent RCI definition of institutions is provided by Jack Knight who defines institutions as:

sets of rules that structure social interactions in particular ways. These rules (1) provide information about how people are expected to act in particular situations, (2) can be recognized by those who are members of the relevant group as the rules to which others conform in these situations, and (3) structure the strategic choices of actors in such a way as to produce equilibrium outcomes.[7]

Explanations for suboptimal institutions[edit]

The Principal-Agent Model[edit]

A key concept of Rational Choice Institutionalism is the principal-agent model borrowed from Neo-classical economics. This model is used to explain why some institutions appear to be inefficient, suboptimal, dysfunctional or generally go against the intentions of the actors who created the institution.[8][6] The concept assumes that the principal enters into a contractual relation with a second party, the agent, and delegates responsibility to the latter to fulfil certain responsibilities or a set of tasks on behalf of the principal.[9] Problems occur due to an asymmetric distribution of information which favours the agent. The latter enables the agent to pursue its own interest and engage in opportunistic behaviour – shirking - at the cost of the principal's interest.[10] The principal's problem is how to control and limit shirking by the agent.

Domestic politics[edit]

RCI scholars may also argue that international institutional dysfunction may stem from domestic politics, as governments use these institutions both to solve problems between states but also to achieve domestic political outcomes.[6]


Rational Choice Institutionalism is frequently contrasted with Historical Institutionalism and Sociological Institutionalism. Historical Institutionalism emphasizes how small events and accidents may create paths from which it is hard to turn back from. Examining the actors involved in creating an institution and the contexts that they were operating in may provide better explanations for why particular institutions were created. Critical junctures – which can be small events and accidents – may lead to institutional change or set institutions on paths from which it is hard to turn back from. This is in contrast to Rational Choice Institutionalism where the creation of institutions, as well as institutional change, reflects optimal and efficient outcomes for actors. Historical institutionalists would rebut that by noting that many institutions are inefficient, and that these inefficiencies can be better explained through path dependency.

Both sociological institutionalism and historical institutionalism would argue against the suggestion that we can assume that actors have exogenous preferences (the notion that we can assume the preferences of actors). They would argue actors do not have stable and consistent preferences, and that scholars cannot assume that they hold a given set of preferences. As a consequence, these other approaches argue that it is unreasonable to assume that a Pareto-optimal equilibrium solution exists to collective action problems.

William H. Riker, a political scientist prominent for his application of game theory and mathematics in political science, argued that a key problem with RCI scholarship was the so-called "inherability problem", which referred to an inability to distinguish whether outcomes resulted from institutions or from the preferences of actors, which made it impossible to predict optimal outcomes.[11]

Terry Moe argues that RCI neglects to consider the ways in which political institutions differ from other institutions, and that RCI neglects the role of power in shaping outcomes.[12][13] In other words, Moe argues that RCI accounts of political institutions as structures of voluntary cooperation, mutual gains and solutions to collective action problems is unrealistic.[12][13] Historical institutionalists make a similar critique as they argue that politics is shaped by policy feedbacks and path dependencies which mean that past policies cement or increase power asymmetries, which shapes the kinds of outcomes that are possible in the future.[14]

Rational Choice Institutionalism is a deductive approach which relies on theoretical model building to explain real world policy outcomes. Therefore, due to its foundation on abstraction and clear lines of reasoning, it oversimplifies human motivation and interaction.[clarification needed][citation needed]

In the context of Latin American politics, Kurt Weyland has argued that Rational Choice Institutionalism is overly focused on politics as it is conducted in legislative institutions and elections, as well as the formal rules and formal institutions of politics. He also argues that it insufficiently accounts for political change and crises, and overly focuses on microfoundations.[15]

In an influential article (and later book), George Washington University political scientists Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore argue rationalist accounts of institutions (such as those emphasizing principal-agent problems) cannot fully account for institutional pathologies.[8][16] They provide a sociological institutionalist account of institutional dysfunction whereby institutions have powers derived from their rational-legal authority, and that these powers and autonomy may give rise to suboptimal outcomes.[8][16]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Weingast, Barry (1998) 'Political Institutions: Rational Choice Perspectives in A new handbook of political science, Robert E. Goodin, Hans-Dieter Klingemann (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Kenneth A. Shepsle. 1989. "Studying Institutions: Some Lessons from the Rational Choice Approach." Journal of Theoretical Politics.
  • Kenneth A. Shepsle. 2008. "Rational Choice Institutionalism." in The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions.
  • Koremenos B, Lipson C, Snidal D. 2001a. The rational design of international institutions. Int. Organ. 55:761–99
  • Moe, T. (2005). Power and Political Institutions. Perspectives on Politics, 3(2), 215-233.
  • Moe, Terry. "Political Institutions: The Neglected Side of the Story." Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 6: 213-254. 1990.
  • D. Green, I. Shapiro. 1996. Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. Yale University Press
  • Thomas A. Koelble. 1995. "The New Institutionalism in Political Science and Sociology." Comparative Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2: pp. 231-243.


  1. ^ Knight, Jack; Sened, Itai, eds. (1996). Explaining Social Institutions. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. pp. 95–120. doi:10.3998/mpub.14827. ISBN 978-0-472-10588-5.
  2. ^ Hall, P. A., & Taylor, R. (1996). Political Science and the Three Institutionalisms. Political Studies, 44, 936-957
  3. ^ Williamson, Oliver (1985) The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, New York, Free Press
  4. ^ Shepsle, K. (2005). Rational Choice Instituionalism. Harvard University Press.
  5. ^ Hall, P. A., & Taylor, R. (1996). Political Science and the Three Institutionalisms. Political Studies, 44, 936-957
  6. ^ a b c d Voeten, Erik (2019). "Making Sense of the Design of International Institutions". Annual Review of Political Science. 22 (1): 147–163. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-041916-021108. ISSN 1094-2939.
  7. ^ Knight, Jack, 1952- (1992). Institutions and social conflict. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-511-52817-0. OCLC 1127523562.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b c Barnett, Michael N.; Finnemore, Martha (1999). "The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations". International Organization. 53 (4): 699–732. doi:10.1162/002081899551048. ISSN 0020-8183. JSTOR 2601307.
  9. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2011-01-07.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Kiewiet, D.R. and McCubbins, M.D. (1991) The Logic of Delegation: Congressional Parties and the Appropriations Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. ^ Riker, William H. (1980). "Implications from the Disequilibrium of Majority Rule for the Study of Institutions". American Political Science Review. 74 (2): 432–446. doi:10.2307/1960638. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 1960638.
  12. ^ a b Moe, Terry M. (2005). "Power and Political Institutions". Perspectives on Politics. 3 (2). doi:10.1017/s1537592705050176. ISSN 1537-5927.
  13. ^ a b Moe, T. M. (1990-01-01). "Political Institutions: The Neglected Side of the Story". Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. 6 (special): 213–253. doi:10.1093/jleo/6.special_issue.213. ISSN 8756-6222.
  14. ^ Pierson, Paul (2000). "Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics". The American Political Science Review. 94 (2): 251–267. doi:10.2307/2586011. hdl:1814/23648. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 2586011.
  15. ^ Weyland, Kurt (2002-03-01). "Limitations of rational-choice institutionalism for the study of Latin American politics". Studies in Comparative International Development. 37 (1): 57–85. doi:10.1007/BF02686338. ISSN 1936-6167.
  16. ^ a b BARNETT, MICHAEL; FINNEMORE, MARTHA (2004). Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-4090-8. JSTOR 10.7591/j.ctt7z7mx.