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Power and Political Institutions

  • Terry M. Moe (a1)

Rational choice theory tends to view political institutions as structures of voluntary cooperation that resolve collective action problems and benefit all concerned. Yet the political process often gives rise to institutions that are good for some people and bad for others, depending on who has the power to impose their will. Political institutions may be structures of cooperation, but they may also be structures of power—and the theory does not tell us much about this. As a result, it gives us a one-sided and overly benign view of what political institutions are and do. This problem is not well understood, and indeed is not typically seen as a problem at all. For there is a widespread sense in the rational choice literature that, because power is frequently discussed, it is an integral part of the theory and just as fundamental as cooperation. Confusion on this score has undermined efforts to right the imbalance. My purpose here is to clarify the analytic roles that power and cooperation actually play in this literature, and to argue that a more balanced theory—one that brings power from its periphery to its very core—is both necessary and entirely possible.Terry M. Moe is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution ( An earlier version of this article was presented at the Yale Conference on Crafting and Operating Institutions, April 11–13, 2003. The author would like to thank Sven Feldmann, Lloyd Gruber, James Fearon, Peter Hall, Jennifer Hochschild, Stephen Krasner, Chris Mantzavinos, Gary Miller, Paul Pierson, Theda Skocpol, Barry Weingast, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

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