Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Chalmers Johnson Skewers Rational Choice

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I’ve been thinking a bit about areas studies and it’s role in the field of political science, in part as an analogy for judicial politics (forthcoming [Update: How Judicial Politics is Like Area Studies]) and it led me back to this piece by the late great anti-imperialist Chalmers Johnson, defending area studies and the verstehen on which they are built against the academic imperialism of rational choice. It’s unfortunate to me that many dissenters within the field are willing to concede the science mantle to standard approaches, and it’s always good to see someone challenge it on these terms. Even better to note the political underpinnings of these approaches whose proponents insist that they and  alone are apolitical.

American academic economics remains the last great modernist project awaiting the attention of post-modernist critics and serious deconstruction. This would involve above all placing works such as Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947)-perhaps the last great modernist text still read with the naiveté of a turn-of-the-century progressive-in their true political setting and displaying their ideological uses in the Cold War, regardless of the alleged intentions of the author. It is possible that some of contemporary neo-classical economics and its offspring could survive a post-modernist critique of their alleged scientific credentials. But rational choice theory has come nowhere close to providing models of political process that approximate those of Samuelson fifty years ago. Unfortunately, Kuttner’s (1997) example of the payoffs from rational choice theory is not a caricature: “Public choice claims that office holders have as their paramount goal re-election, and that groups of voters are essentially ‘rent seekers’ looking for a free ride at public expense, rather than legitimate members of a political collectivity expressing democratic voice. Ordinary citizens are drowned out by organized interest groups, so the mythic ‘people’ never get what they want. Thus, since the democratic process is largely a sham, as well as a drag on economic efficiency, it is best to entrust as little to the public realm as possible.” This might pass as an official statement of Singaporean ideology or even help explain the current enthusiasm among America neoconservatives for the authoritarian oligarchies of East Asia, but as political science it is dangerous nonsense (Heilbrunn 1996).

Chalmers Johnson, “Preconception vs. Observation, or the Contributions of Rational Choice Theory and Area Studies to Contemporary Political Science” (1997)

I feel quite the same way about the scientific status of the claim’s of judicial behavioralists to have developed a general model of judicial-decision making that essentially boils down to individual values. In an earlier piece, Johnson also points to the lack of self-awareness of the discipline in regards to area studies.

Political science “area studies,” or what the American Political Science Association calls “foreign and comparative government and politics” in order to insure that they not be confused with the biggest area study of them all, United States government and politics, have always posed difficulties for the Emily Posts of the discipline.’

That American politics is not generally seen as a form of area studies is an important point.  Again, there is a parallel to judicial politics, but that will have to wait for another day.

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  1. […] the question in the title – how is judicial politics like area studies? Thinking of legal culture like more traditional senses of culture is helpful here.  It has its […]


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