The Failure of the Self-Interested Actor Model | The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Failure of the Self-Interested Actor Model
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Today, Reid Smith in his column on Mark Sanford presented the “public choice” model of explaining politicians’ behavior. It draws on the principle, from economics, that rational individuals will make choices based on their own self-interest. In an unfortunate turn of events, the Behavioralism movement that was birthed in the 1930s took root in political theory during the 1960s. Behavioralism loved rational choice theory. Theorists tried their damnedest to explain the behavior of human beings by focusing in on rational self-interest.

It’s all crap.

Human beings are not rational, self-interested actors. Emotion clouds everything and decisions are never made in a vacuum. This is why game theory sometimes fails at the poker table: human beings imperfections.

Reid uses this approach to support the notion of holding your nose and voting for Mark Sanford as it is in your political interests to do so (and if it isn’t you probably came here from Slate or The Colbert Report). However, Reid’s own example of Sanford shows how flawed rational choice can be. Sanford had every incentive to not cheat on his wife. His career, his family and his finances were all damaged by the decision to commit adultery.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s suggest that the affair was Sanford’s “greatest self-interest,” his ultimate goal, and all other goals were subordinate beneath it. Even still, Sanford was blatant in disappearing to South America. He could have been much more discrete and not sacrificed his other interests (and, oh, by the way, his constituents). Sanford is a perfect example of an actor who is wholly NOT rational. His emotional circumstances clouded his judgment.

My point is not to endorse Colbert-Busch over Mark Sanford, but rather to critique public choice theory. Political scientists have long sought to make political behavior predictable, but human beings refuse to bend to predicted outcomes. In economics, where profit often is the bottom line, rational choice is much more useful, but political behavior is much stickier to explain.

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