Private Desires, Political Action: An Invitation to the Politics of Rational Choice


Michael Laver

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    This book started life as a massively revised edition of The Politics of Private Desires, originally published by Penguin Books in 1981. Revising an ancient book in a fast-moving field turned out to be a harrowing experience. This is not because there was so much new literature to refer to. There has of course been an explosion of literature in the field since 1980, when The Politics of Private Desires was completed but, as I make clear in the opening chapter, this is not a review of the literature. The problem was that I found, when re-reading the original book carefully for the first time in many years, that it seemed so wrong in so many places. At times I could hardly bear to read what I had written. I was tempted to run away from the revision, leaving the original text to die a decent death, but as you can see I didn't. When I came out from under the bed and had a another look, three things about The Politics of Private Desires did still seem as valid today as they were when it was originally written, and encouraged me to persevere.

    First, rational choice theory, the real subject of the book, is still a collection of disparate writings on a varied range of matters. It thus still fails in my view, and despite its evident potential to the contrary, to exploit the fact that there are indeed unifying themes that do make it a general ‘approach’ to analysing politics. Despite a very welcome increase in the extent to which different parts of the approach now borrow and adapt concepts from each other there is still far too little synergy between its component parts. And I now understand much better why this is the case.

    The sharp end of rational choice theory really is very sharp. Since the approach relies famously on a formal style of argument, there has been a strong tendency for practitioners to see the way forward in terms of ever – increasing technical sophistication and/or complexity. This has spawned something of a ‘have gun, will travel’ approach among sharp-end practitioners, as high-tech intellectual gunslingers has moved from one application in the field to another, solving one local problem before moving on quickly to another. There have been relatively few people at the cutting edge of the approach who have picked a big substantive problem and stuck with this over a long period of time, interpreting developments in the field as a whole in terms of how these can help them with their task. Norman Schofield's work on coalitions, developed systematically over many years, is one obvious exception to this rule. (For some reflections on this, see Schofield, 1997). Thus while there has in fact been an increasing level of technical cross-fertilization in the field, there has been little real cross-fertilization of substantive arguments. Since 1980, indeed, I have become more rather than less fearful that the entire approach is concerned far more with technique than with substance. This book, as was its predecessor, is aggressively concerned with substance rather than technique in an attempt to redress this balance.

    This leads to the second theme that links this book with its ancestor, which is that the main substantive structure of the original argument remains the same. Thus each chapter deals with the same themes as before in the same logical sequence. We move from the particular and individual to the general and political, from an individual rational calculus to problems of collective action, to the role of politics in resolving those problems, building at each stage upon the arguments of the previous one. This is appropriate because the rational choice approach, as we shall see, is ultimately reductionist in its methodological insistence on deducing logical accounts of politics from assumptions about individuals.

    There was a time when, if an academic colleague (most often a philosopher or sociologist) accused someone of being a reductionist then that was the end of the matter. If not actually running away and bursting into tears in some dark corer, the accused could never really dispel the suspicion that they might indeed have done something mad, bad or sad. I too was wounded by accusations of reductionism back in the early 1980s but now I can honestly say that I really do see nothing wrong with it. Many more years since then of reading volumes of ‘non-reductionist’ writings on politics have not convinced me of their superior virtues. Quite the contrary. At least ‘reductionist’ rational choice theorists typically have the intellectual toughness that comes from first defining a more or less unambiguous set of premises and then applying a system of logic more or less rigorously to these, in an attempt to generate interesting and non-obvious interpretations of the world of politics. The results of all this may be spartan but they are rarely waffle. While rational choice theorists must of course be ready, willing and able to defend themselves against rival coherent models of politics, they should not be embarrassed when critics claim that ‘thick’ description, ‘rich’ case studies or haphazard cross-national empirical research tell more of the truth than a coherent logical model.

    In one way I have, however, pulled back from a rather grandiose objective that motivated me when I wrote The Politics of Private Desires in 1980. I no longer think that the rational choice approach can be knocked into a single, unified, model of politics covering everything from the moment of creation to the end of the universe. Too much blood must be shed trying to defend this position and there is really no good reason to defend it. In practical terms, however, this does not undermine the argument in the present book, which deals with a series of matters – concerning collective action and political competition – that are self-evidently interrelated. It does seem sensible to argue that theoretical accounts of these matters should hang together substantively.

    The third distinctive feature of The Politics of Private Desires is that it was aggressively non-technical. I do not flinch one little bit from doing things the same way again. The substantive themes discussed in what follows are important matters of interest to all. There is some validity in the dismissive accusation of a number of critics that rational choice theorists spend their days in ivory towers counting how many rational angels can dance on the head of a pin, given the relative unwillingness of practitioners to express their arguments in a form that can be read, appreciated and of course criticized by outsiders, especially those who know a lot about the substance of politics. Non-technical does not mean simplistic, however, despite the occasional protestations of some of those high-tech sharpshooters to the contrary. I hope this book is not simplistic. Its intention is to discuss, and to reflect upon, some of the main issues considered by rational choice theorists, and to suggest ways in which the whole enterprise might be moved forward. My criterion has remained that, if a substantive argument cannot adequately be discussed in words rather than mathematical formulae, then it is best left to the technocrats and, at the same time I am afraid, probably consigned to obscurity.

    So much for what has stayed the same. Much, however, has changed since the original version of The Politics of Private Desires. As I indicated above, I found myself unwilling to stand over quite a bit of the detailed argument in the original, and have made substantial changes to this. And many good things have been published in the meantime that do of course have to be taken into account. The result is that this is in practice less of a revision of The Politics of Private Desires and more of a new book. It is in some sense based upon the original text, and the argument does have the same basic structure. While I have felt free to reuse the original words, nearly all of the sentences in this book differ from those in the original version and many parts have been totally rewritten from scratch. To signal that this is mostly a new book, I have given it a mostly new title, Private Desires, Political Action, but one which does retain the ‘private desires’ brand name by which the old book became known.

    In terms of substance, probably the greatest changes have been made to the discussions of public goods – which I have banished almost entirely and replaced with the more general notion of ‘political services’ – and of political entrepreneurs. The latter still present one the great challenges for rational choice theorists since they provide a link between probably the two major sub-fields in the approach – the politics of collective action and the politics of elections and party competition. Despite the fact that not much has been written on political entrepreneurs since 1980, I remain utterly convinced of their importance. Rereading what I had written on the subject in The Politics of Private Desires, was a truly toe-curling experience. It is just plain silly to claim, as I did then, that politicians can be seen as people who use publicly mandated sanctions to produce public goods for profit and retain the surplus for themselves. They don't, at least legally, in any political system with which I am familiar.

    I now present politicians as people who provide various services that help groups resolve collective action problems. This discussion of the role of politicians has also been helped very much by developments in various aspects of rational choice theory. The whole ‘principal-agent’ approach, with its focus on shirking and monitoring, has been justly influential since 1980 and does add a lot to how we can think of politicians. Much more has been written on the role of reputation, allowing us to see politicians as developing reputations that become part of their stock-in-trade and giving us an account of why it is reasonable to expect that they will do at least part of what they say they will do.

    Many other detailed parts of the discussion have also changed. Developments in the discipline have forced a complete overhaul of the discussion of voting and party competition. The paradox of why people vote when their vote can't make a difference, for example, has been discussed by many more people in much more interesting ways than it had in 1980. Accounts of voting and party competition are now based on multidimensional, rather than one-dimensional descriptions of people's tastes. Discussions of the politics of coalition have become much more sophisticated in recent years and the chapter on this subject has therefore been expanded as well as overhauled from top to bottom.

    But at the end of it all, this is at least the same sort of book as The Politics of Private Desires. Even if most of the words and much of the detailed argument are different, my basic motivation in writing it remains my conviction that rational choice theory has an awful lot to contribute to how we understand the political world, just as long as the real engine behind its development is a concern for the substance of politics rather than for techniques of political analysis. To find a review of some of the specific ways in which rational choice theory has made a contribution to our understanding of the real political world, readers should do now what people should always do after reading the preface of a book such as this, which is jump straight to the conclusion before reading anything else.

    The Politics of Private Desires was in effect my first book. The original project comprised a book of words about various aspects of the politics of private desires, and an appendix of games, one game for each chapter in the book. The idea of the games was that people, in playing these, would get more of an intuitive feel for the ideas so imperfectly expressed in the words. Penguin separated the words from the games and published them separately, and the games appeared first in 1979 as Playing Politics. As it happens, I have also just done a massive revision of Playing Politics, with new games and better versions of the old games. This is appearing as Playing Politics: the Nightmare Continues, published by Oxford University Press. I still feel quite strongly that playing games such as these can give people a much more subtle intuitive feel for the ideas so imperfectly expressed in words or even, dare I say it, in mathematical formulae.

    Finally, I should thank many people. First, there is Ziyad Marar of Sage, who suggested publishing a revised edition of The Politics of Private Desires (though I must say I did not always thank him in my heart when facing the actual task of revision). Then there are Thad Brown, Ricca Edmondson, Eddie Hyland, Peter Morriss, Ken Shepsle and Kaare Strom who went in detail through an earlier draft of this revised book, between them bringing the skills of political scientist and political philosopher to bear upon it and suggesting ways in which the whole thing might be made less awful. Getting a fat typescript from a ‘friend’ in the profession and being asked for sensible comments on it is an occupational hazard but it is not something, if we are honest, that any of us much relish. So these thanks really are heartfelt, as are my apologies for wantonly ignoring some of this good advice, even when it was right. Finally and most importantly, there are so many friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed the world over the years. I am not going to name names for that would be invidious, although I can certainly trace particular pieces of the argument that follows to particular conversations I have had with particular people. Some of the people involved, if they read this book, may well recognize those conversations too. The bottom line is that every idea in this book has developed from an interaction of some sort with a friend, enemy and/or intellectual colleague. It is customary at this point to reserve all of the blame for oneself, but I have never been wholly convinced, when friends, enemies and colleagues have contributed so much to my thinking, that they can so easily be exonerated.

    Michael Laver, Dalkey, September 1996

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