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Rational Choice Theory and Policy Making

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Are humans working for themselves alone? Do they truly do things for the benefit of others or is every action driven by the need of self-satisfaction? In my opinion, it is also important to ask the question; is this a negative trait? I will discuss these questions below, whilst also incorporating rational choice theory and the benefit of this in politics and public policy making.

One of the earliest ideas of a selfish nature springs from Max Weber’s idea of “the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Newby, 1983). In this section Lee and Newby discuss the link between this particular religion and the rise of capitalism. Protestants led a life where their ‘goal’ was material gain. There were no celebrations unless they were sober events and relaxation was frowned upon. This leads to a prominent question asked by Lee and Newby; “how can a form of social and economic organisation explicitly devoted to the ‘material’ be connected with a religion which is fundamentally concerned with the ‘immaterial’ and or the spiritual’?”.

Protestants would work for the ‘greater good’, keeping God in mind for everything they do. Stripping themselves of the simplest of pleasures, all for what? Apparently, it was all for God. However, though this may be true and they were working for God, the selfish undertone cannot be ignored. Everything they did was for a place in heaven. They believed they would be rewarded for their hard work and devotion. This implies that humans are indeed inherently selfish. From this example, it can be assumed that is not an entirely negative trait, quite positive really. These people worked extremely hard for everything they earned and lived a strict, monitored life. It is irrelevant that they may have had selfish motives as they caused no harm. If anything it is a positive outlook to have in life as it provides hope of something greater at the end of life, it may have given these people a little hope in everyday life. Rational choice theory also implies here. The idea that people make decisions based on the best outcome for them certainly links to Lee and Newby’s ideas. The protestants clearly chose how to live their lives based on the probability of them getting into heaven. The idea of goal-fulfilment linked to rational choice theory is seen in this example. These people were extremely dedicated to their ultimate goal, they worked hard day after day and followed an extremely strict routine to fulfil their goal.

“Rational choice theory is variously praised, with significant immodesty, for its contribution to political theory, wide applicability, explanatory power, influence on public policy, and promising future” (Petracca, 1991). This quote gives a rather uplifting outlook on rational choice theory, giving the reader of the article some food for thought. You cannot deny that rational choice theory plays a role in most aspects of life, but, particularly in politics and public decision making. However, it’s whether this idea of humans acting on personal interest and goal fulfilment has a positive effect in these areas. Petracca describes rational choice theory in many ways, saying that it could be described as “the crude and unbridled pursuit of material self-interest to utility maximisation to purposive behaviour”. This description shows a wide-scale and huge variety in the way that rational choice theory can be interpreted. Perhaps it depends on the person. Take, for example, some political leaders in Ireland, we have a serious growing housing crisis in this country, particularly in the bigger cities, yet the government are not taking this as seriously as necessary. Could this be because some of these political leaders may be landlords? A report in the Irish Examiner showed that “one in every five TDs are landlords”. Perhaps they benefit from the high rent prices, so, therefore, are not willing to implement a policy or introduce rent cap to tackle this issue. This could certainly fall under a chaotic or possibly indecent view of rational choice. However, if we switch it and look at the opposite end of the scale, what would the resolute and somewhat calculated view of rational choice look like? Perhaps the availability of free healthcare would fit into this description nicely. Not to make assumptions, but, presumably, most political leaders avail of private healthcare. So, does the fact that there is (mostly) affordable public healthcare available in Ireland versus somewhere like the United States of America where there is no such thing as free healthcare tell us something about rational choice theory here in our country? Could it be said that perhaps this example falls under the more purposive side of the theory? This is not to say that this is still free of self-interest as, possibly, the policy makers still have a selfish motive in the way that at least there is the availability of this service should they or any family etc. need it. Furthermore, I think from this paragraph, it is fair to say that human nature is predominately selfish and self-serving. Instinctively everyone will put themselves, family, and possibly friends before strangers.

“It is fair to say that the dominant approach to making, implementing and evaluating public policy is one variation of the rational choice there or another” (Stambough, 1998, p. 449). Rational choice theory, clearly, has a huge influence on the process of policy making. It is alluded to in the article that rational choice theory has a rather positive impact as it creates a setting that is fair for the public and has many benefits for all. This can be seen with the examples given above and also with education perhaps. Does rational choice theory eliminate hierarchy in public policy making? It appears to provide a higher public satisfaction level. The idea that the policy is being made for the good of the nation, to improve infrastructure and day to day life.

However, like most things in society, using rational choice theory in politics and public policy making does not come without its criticisms. “ For when a modern liberal state makes policy, it is not the citizen which it has in mind. Rather, it is the stereotyped ‘economic man’, driven solely by self-interest, who occupied centre stage” (Steward, 1993, p. 317). This viewpoint introduces a stark reality into rational choice in politics. Steward (1993) suggests that the rational model adds a problem of compliance. If the policy is set up with a specific type of person in mind then it will be considerably more difficult to have everyone agree with this and conform to it. Perhaps it adds a sort of business type outlook to policy making, doing things that will have a greater economic benefit rather than what the individual citizen thinks is best. Also, is it possible that the average citizen could grow to resent policy makers if they feel as though the policy maker is working mostly out of self-interest? People on a lower pay scale may feel as though these public policy makers are working against them as they may not have the same outlook on necessities as them. This introduces a conflict of interest also. Is there a possibility that these people would retaliate if a policy they didn’t agree with was introduced. This is why it’s important to have consequences and rewards. People will conform to a new policy etc. if they understand that there will be negative outcomes if they do not. Steward (1993) gives here an example of taxpayers. Tax is necessary to ensure that there is welfare available for the country, however, some working-class people are not happy when this money is taken out of their income. Yet, if the tax rates are reduced too much then there will not be sufficient funds for state benefits. This again shows the problem of compliance. It also clarifies once again that humans are inherently selfish, these taxpayers do not want to give their money to the state, they want to keep it all for themselves, which may seem rational as they earned this money but for the state to function efficiently this tax money is essential.

In conclusion, I truly believe that human nature is primarily selfish. People will do what they think is best for them and what they assume will have a greater profit. Rational choice theory plays a major role in politics and public policy making, this is a mostly positive role yet there are of course some critiques on the model. There is the idea that humans will choose the thing that will have a greater utility maximisation or goal-fulfilment.

Works Cited

  1. Cionnaith, F. Ó., 2018. ‘Conflict of Interest’ as one in every five TDs are landlords, Dublin: The IrishExaminer Ltd..
  2. Newby, D. Lee H, 1983. Weber and the Origins of Capitalism. In: The Problem of Sociology. London: Taylor and Francis LTD..
  3. Petracca, M. P., 1991. The Rational Choice Approach to Politics: A Challenge to Democratic Theory. The Review of Politics, 53(2), pp. 289-319.
  4. Stambough, M. N. S. J., 1998. Rational Choice Theory and the Evaluation of Public Policy. Policy Studies Journal, 26(3), pp. 449-465.
  5. Steward, J., 1993. Rational choice theory, public policy and the liberal state. Social Sciences, 26(4), pp. 317-330. 

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