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How Far is it from Virginia and Rochester to Frankfurt? Public Choice as Critical Theory

  • John S. Dryzek

Public choice and critical theory constitute two very different and often mutually hostile research traditions. An opportunity for conversation across the two traditions arises inasmuch as public choice has itself demonstrated the incoherence of a politics – in particular, a democratic politics – of unconstrained rational egoism. By deploying an expanded, communicative conception of rationality, critical theory can help move public choice beyond several related impasses. Critical theory benefits from this encounter by gaining content for its currently rather abstract critiques of politics and rationality, and additional insight into the forces conducive to different kinds of rationality. More importantly, political science stands to gain an account of politics more powerful than either tradition can muster by itself.

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1 Almond, Gabriel A., A Discipline Divided: Schools and Sects in Political Science (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1990), p. 19.

2 Riker, William H., ‘The Two-Party System and Duverger's Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science’, American Political Science Review, 76 (1982), 753–66, p. 753.

3 Bohman, James, ‘Communication, Ideology, and Democratic Theory’, American Political Science Review, 84 (1990), 93109, p. 107. One of the first attempts at dialogue across the two traditions is made by White, Stephen K., ‘Toward a Critical Political Science’, in Ball, Terence, ed., Idioms of Inquiry: Critique and Renewal in Political Science (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987). White treats rational choice and critical theory as rival research programmes. He argues that critical theory outperforms its rival in two problem areas: the long-running community power debate, and the dynamics of modernization. More recently, Johnson, James, ‘Rational Choice as a Reconstructive Theory’, in Monroe, Kristen, ed., The Economic Approach to Politics (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) has interpreted rational choice's game theory in terms of critical theory's reconstructive science category.

4 Dogan, Mattei and Pahre, Robert, Creative Marginality: Innovation at the Intersection of Social Sciences (Boulder, Col.: Westview, 1990).

5 MacIntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 364–5.

6 Political order should here be taken to mean political institutions that produce collective choices in consistent, non-dictatorial and non-violent fashion, and that can lay claim to public legitimacy.

7 For a review of the Rochester School, focusing on Riker, see Weale, Albert, ‘Social Choice Versus Populism? An Interpretation of Riker's Political Theory’, British Journal of Political Science, 14 (1984), 369–85. For more general surveys of public choice, see McLean, Iain, ‘Some Recent Work in Public Choice’, British Journal of Political Science, 16 (1986), 377–94, and Mitchell, William C., ‘Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-Five Years of Public Choice and Political Science’, Public Choice, 56 (1988), 101–19.

8 More complete histories of the Frankfurt School may be found in Jay, Martin, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950 (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1973) and Held, David, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (London: Hutchinson, 1980). For an excellent account of critical theory more generally, see Leonard, Stephen T., Critical Theory in Political Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990). Critical theory of the sort under discussion here should not be confused with the efforts of Derrideans and deconstructionists in literary theory, who have unfortunately tried to appropriate the term.

9 There are feminists who would say that this really is a model of man.

10 Bohman, James, ‘Participating in Enlightenment: Habermas's Cognitivist Interpretation of Democracy’, in Dascal, Marcelo and Gruengard, Ora, eds, Knowledge and Politics (Boulder, Col.: Westview, 1989), p. 270.

11 White, , ‘Toward a Critical Political Science’, p. 117.

12 Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1964).

13 Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

14 Buchanan, James M., ‘Politics Without Romance: A Sketch of Positive Public Choice and its Normative Implications’, in Hamlin, Alan and Pettit, Philip, eds, Contemporary Political Theory (New York: Macmillan, 1991), p. 217.

15 Moon, J. Donald, ‘The Logic of Political Inquiry: A Synthesis of Opposed Perspectives’, in Greenstein, Fred I. and Polsby, Nelson W., eds, Handbook of Political Science, vol. 1 (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975); Ball, Terence, ‘From Paradigms to Research Programs: Toward a Post-Kuhnian Political Science’, American Journal of Political Science, 20 (1976), 151–77.

16 Riker, , ‘The Two-Party System’; Mitchell, , ‘Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington’, pp. 102–6.

17 Buchanan, , ‘Politics Without Romance’, p. 217.

18 See also Johnson, , ‘Rational Choice as a Reconstructive Theory’.

19 Habermas, Jürgen, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1971); Fay, Brian, Social Theory and Political Practice (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1975), pp. 2947.

20 Almond, , A Discipline Divided, pp. 1617; Buchanan, , ‘Politics Without Romance’.

21 Brennan, Geoffrey, ‘Politics With Romance: Towards a Theory of Democratic Socialism’, in Pettit, Philip, ed., The Good Polity: Normative Analysis of the State (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 63.

22 Wittman, Donald, ‘Why Democracies Produce Efficient Outcomes’, Journal of Political Economy, 97 (1989), 13951424, p. 1395, n. 1.

23 Arrow, Kenneth J., Social Choice and Individual Values, rev. edn. (New York: Wiley, 1963).

24 Riker, William H., Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1982), p. 241.

25 Buchanan, James M. and Tullock, Gordon, The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962). A situation is Pareto optimal when no individual can be made better off without making some other individual worse off. The criterion is much favoured by welfare economists, who generally argue that perfect markets produce this kind of outcome.

26 Niskanen, William A., Bureaucracy and Representative Government (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1971).

27 Fiorina, Morris P., Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977).

28 Friedman, Milton and Friedman, Rose, Tyranny of the Status Quo (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).

29 Mitchell, , ‘Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington’, p. 108.

30 Olson, Mancur, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983).

31 Barry, Brian and Hardin, Russell, eds, Rational Man and Irrational Society? (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1982).

32 Riker, , Liberalism Against Populism, p. xviii.

33 Brennan, , ‘Politics With Romance’.

34 Brennan, , ‘Politics With Romance’, p. 62.

35 For Brennan, politicians should actually believe these principles, and not just act as if they believed them. A similar function is performed by Downs's argument that rational parties should espouse ideologies of some stability, because otherwise rational voters would not believe that parties will keep their election-time promises. See Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957). But for Downs, it is not necessary for politicians to actually believe in their ideologies.

36 Bohman, , ‘Communication, Ideology’, p. 107.

37 To use the title of Mitchell, William C., Government As It Is (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1988).

38 Habermas, Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action I: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1984).

39 Brennan, , ‘Politics With Romance’.

40 Vanberg, Viktor and Buchanan, James M., ‘Interests and Theories in Constitutional Choice’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 1 (1989), 4962.

41 Vanberg, and Buchanan, , ‘Interests and Theories’, p. 59.

42 Vanberg, and Buchanan, , ‘Interests and Theories’, p. 60.

43 Vanberg, and Buchanan, , ‘Interests and Theories’, p. 60.

44 Critical theorists themselves would also point to the influence here of education, the experience of participation in collective life, the increasing availability of information, the reduced pressure of subsistence needs and the diffusion of democratic ideas.

45 Cultural variability in other kinds of societies may limit instrumental rationality. See Almond, , A Discipline Divided, pp. 134–5.

46 Arguably, public choice implicitly warrants further behavioural constraints by treating particular kinds of maximization as inevitable in particular locations. So consumers maximize utility through consumption, producers maximize profits, bureaucrats maximize budgets, politicians maximize their probability of election and re-election, citizens maximize benefits to themselves by choosing among candidates for office (assuming they are irrational enough to vote) and so forth. Hindess, Barry, Political Choice and Social Structure (Aldershot, Hants.: Edward Elgar, 1989), pp. 5660, claims that public choice is guilty of a kind of structural determinism, in which individual behaviour and the shape of individual preference ordering (be it cardinal, ordinal or lexical) is caused by one's place in established social structures, rather than freely chosen. In reply to Hindess, it must be said that rational choice theorists simply point out that choice occurs within a contextually-constrained feasible set, which is not the same as requiring that the individual's method of choice be structurally determined. Public choice also allows that individuals may seek to manipulate the parameters of structural situations; see Riker, William H., ‘The Heresthetics of Constitution-Making: The Presidency in 1787, with Comments on Determinism and Rational Choice’, American Political Science Review, 78 (1984), 116.

47 Dawes, R., McTavish, J. and Shaklee, H., ‘Behavior, Communications, and Assumptions About Other Peoples' Behavior in a Commons Dilemma Situation’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35 (1977), 111; Orbell, John M., van de Kragt, Alphons J. C. and Dawes, Robyn M., ‘Explaining Discussion-Induced Cooperation in Social Dilemmas’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (1988), 811–19.

48 Baseline and discussion-induced co-operation rates are not a function of subjects interacting outside the experiment. The Orbell-Dawes experiments do not recruit their subjects from undergraduate classes but rather through newspaper advertisements. Real money is at stake and care is taken to ensure that participants in each group are strangers to one another, with no particular likelihood of future interaction.

49 Orbell, John M., Dawes, Robyn M. and van de Kragt, Alphons J. C., ‘The Limits of Multilateral Promising’, Ethics, 100(1990), 616–27.

50 Buchanan, James M., ‘Then and Now, 1961–1986: From Delusion to Dystopia’, paper presented at the Institute for Humane Studies, 1986, quoted in Mansbridge, Jane J., ‘The Rise and Fall of Self-interest in the Explanation of Political Life’, in Mansbridge, Jane J., ed, Beyond Self-Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 21.

51 Hirschman, Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Political A rgumentsfor Capitalism Before its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977).

52 Mansbridge, Jane J., Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

53 Dryzek, John S., Discursive Democracy: Politics, Policy, and Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 3848.

54 Dryzek, , Discursive Democracy, pp. 37–8, 4850.

55 Barber, Benjamin, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

56 Mansbridge, , Beyond Adversary Democracy.

57 Forester, John, Planning in the Face of Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

58 Kelman, Steven, ‘“Public Choice” and Public Spirit’, The Public Interest, 87 (1987), 8094.

59 Hardin, Russell, ‘Review Article: Constitutional Political Economy – Agreement on Rules’, British Journal of Political Science, 18 (1988), 513–30, p. 515.

60 Buchanan and others draw a sharp distinction between ‘constitutional’ and ‘in-period’ collective choice. They hope that constitutional choice will involve such uncertainty about the effects of different arrangements on particular individuals' well-being that each individual will behave in impartial fashion. This hope contradicts the public choice literature on rent-seeking, which argues that individuals will seek rules favourable to themselves; see Vanberg, and Buchanan, , ‘Interests and Theories’, p. 53.

61 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976 [1776]).

62 Friedman, Milton and Friedman, Rose, Free to Choose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 30.

63 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Clarenden, 1976[1759]).

64 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971); Gauthier, David, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

65 Phillipson, Nicholas, ‘Adam Smith as a Civic Moralist’, in Hont, Istvan and Ignatieff, Michael, eds, Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 183.

66 A century later, Edgeworth would argue, relatedly, that the economic calculus is appropriate only to war and contract; see Sen, Amartya K., ‘Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory’, in Harris, H., ed., Scientific Models and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 317.

67 Smith, , Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 342.

68 Hont, Istvan and Ignatieff, Michael, ‘Needs and Justice in The Wealth of Nations, in Hont, and Ignatieff, , eds, Wealth and Virtue, pp. 910.

69 Winch, Donald, ‘Adam Smith's “Enduring Particular Result”: A Political and Cosmopolitan Perspective’, in Hont, and Ignatieff, , eds, Wealth and Virtue, p. 260.

70 Elster, Jon, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Przeworski, Adam, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Roemer, John, ed., Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

71 Weldes, Jutta, ‘Marxism and Methodological Individualism: A Critique’, Theory and Society, 18 (1989), 353–86, p. 373.

72 Elster, Jon, ‘Marxism and Individualism’, in Dascal, and Gruengard, , eds, Knowledge and Politics, p. 193.

73 Barry, and Hardin, , Rational Man and Irrational Society?, p. 383.

74 Downs, , An Economic Theory of Democracy.

75 Riker, William H. and Ordeshook, Peter C., ‘A Theory of the Calculus of Voting’, American Political Science Review, 72 (1968), 2542, p. 28.

76 Enelow, James and Hinich, Melvin, The Spatial Theory of Voting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 221.

77 Brennan, , ‘Politics With Romance’.

78 Buchanan, , ‘Then and Now’.

79 Vanberg, and Buchanan, , ‘Interests and Theories’.

80 Elster, Jon, ‘The Market and the Forum’, in Elster, Jon and Hylland, Aanud, eds, Foundations of Social Choice Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 114.

* Department of Political Science, University of Oregon, Eugene. Previous versions of this article were presented to the Department of Political Science at Duke University and the 1991 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. For criticism I thank Rom Coles, Robert Goodin, James Johnson, Stephen Leonard, William Mitchell, Donald Moon and John Orbell.

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