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Rational Choice and the New(?) Institutionalism Author(s): Morris Fiorina Source: Polity, Vol. 28, No.

1, (Autumn, 1995), pp. 107-115 Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals Stable URL: Accessed: 22/04/2008 18:16
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Rational Choice and the New(?) Institutionalism Morris Fiorina, Harvard University

Morris Fiorina is Professor of Political Science at Harvard University. He is the author of Divided Government (1992), Home Style and Washington Work (1989), Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment (1977, 2nd ed. 1989), and other works on American politics.

Sitting here today I feel a kinship with Admiral Stockdale: "why am I here?" I'm not a member of SSHA, do not self-consciously identify as an institutionalist, and to the best of my recollection have never described any of my work as "new institutionalism." In fact, at some risk of provoking the other panelists, I'll confess that I'm not completely persuaded that the "new institutionalism" amounts to much beyond the normal progression of social science stimulated by the normal desire of younger scholars to distinguish themselves from the generation ahead of them. In that slightly argumentative spirit I first offer some remarks about the alleged revival of institutionalism within political science. Then, switching to a kinder, gentler spirit, I'll turn to the reason I'm presumably here and say some things about rational choice approaches to the study of institutions and political history. Institutionalism and the Study of American Politics In 1982-83, during an enjoyable year at Stanford, I became friends with an eminent scholar who was extremely enthused about something called "bringing the state back in." According to my colleague this enterprise was (1) institutional, (2) historical, and (3) new. As an American politics specialist I was amused. If by "state" he meant government or public officials, there was no need to bring them back in, since they already were back in-if they had ever been gone. The academic study of American politics had been broadly divided into "behavior" and "institutions" at least since the mid-1960s when I became professionally aware. Every major department had a good representation of both "behavior people" (voting and public opinion, parties and interest groups) and NumberI VIII,Number Volume VolumeXX I XXVIII, 199S Fall Fall 1995


108 Polity Forum "institutional people" (congress, presidency, bureaucracy, judicial) and many of us moved freely across the divide. To be sure, the "new institutionalists" of the 1960s differed from the old institutionalists of the 1920s. The former regarded their predecessors as too reformist in their orientation, too descriptive, and too caught up in formal and legal minutiae. The new institutionalists took satisfaction in their disinterested stance, their commitment to social science theory, and most importantly, their attention to informal phenomena such as norms. But most assuredly there was a general recognition that government officials and government institutions mattered. For example, every American politics graduate student'of the 1960s studied Dahl's Who Governs,1 the 1962 Woodrow Wilson Award winner, which among other things, describes the important role of Mayor Lee.2 Equally widely assigned was the 1964 Wilson Award winner, Bauer, Pool, and Dexter's American Business and Public Policy,3 which among other things argued for the autonomy of members of Congress from interest group and constituency pressures. Presidency specialists dissected Neustadt's Presidential Power4 (1961 Woodrow Wilson Award), and congressional specialists discussed Gross's The Legislative Struggle5 (1954 Wilson Award), and Bailey's Congress Makes a Law6 (1950 Wilson Award). As for history, every American politics student pored over V. O. Key's Southern Politics7 (1949 Woodrow Wilson Award), and who was a more influential figure in American politics research all through the 1970s than Dean Burham, who had extended Key's historical studies? Even in the voting behavior subfield, the intellectual stronghold of the behavioral-

1. Robert Dahl, Who Governs?Democracyand Power in an AmericanCity (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1961). himselfan institutionalhas observed thatDahldidnot consider McDonald 2. Terrence latergenerations ist. Fairenough,but how Dahlsaw himselfis not dispositive; mayhavea of what a scholar'swork was actuallyabout. clearerunderstanding 3. Raymond Bauer,Ithielde Sola Pool, andLewisA. Dexter,AmericanBusinessand PublicPolicy (New York:Atherton,1963). Power(New York:Wiley, 1960). E. Neustadt,Presidential 4. Richard 5. Bertram Gross, The LegislativeStruggle:A Study in Social Combat(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954). Makesa Law (NewYork:Vintage,1950).He discusses 6. Stephen K. Bailey,Congress interests"(p. 236) and non-governmental "power coalitionsof political,administrative, and concludesthat nationaleconomicpolicyreflectsa "largelyirresponsible interplayof (p. 240). ideas, interests,institutions,and individuals" 7. V. O. Key, SouthernPolitics (New York:Knopf, 1949).

Polity Forum 109 ists, how long had the supposedly"ahistorical"American Voters(NOT the 1960 WoodrowWilson Awardwinner)been hegemonic?At most a decade by my reading. Among congressionalscholars, the pioneering and Price" stimulated interestin historical studiesof Cooper,9Polsby,10 of the committeeand leadership studiesof careersand the development structures.Preachless and read more, I suggestedto my new colleague. how muchhas beenpublishedsinceArthurBentleyYou'd be surprised not that many people had believedhim anyway. Duringthe succeedingyearsI have learnedmore about the enterprise my colleaguewas so excitedabout and havecome to take that enterprise veryseriously.Otherthan Thedaherself, I don't thinkanyonewas more pleased when she joined the illustrious group of Woodrow Wilson Award winners.But I continueto believethat much of the allegeddifference between modern historical institutionalistsand mainstream Americanists revolvesless aroundthe importanceof eitherinstitutional and/or historicalstudies in principle,than around specific substantive disagreements,such as expertsversus elected officials, accidentversus agency, and ideas versus interests, and different methodologicalpreferences. Thus I resist efforts to make commitmentto one position or anotherin such debatespart of the definitionof institutionalism. For me institutionalismis not an approachor a set of commitments.Rather, institutionsare subject matter to be approachedin different ways by scholars with different interestsoperatingout of different traditions. Here, as elsewhere,let a thousand flowersbloom. Political scienceis a large, heterogeneous discipline,and I cannotpresumeto speakfor all of it, thoughI thinkthe preceding sentiments would be fairly common withinthe Americanpolitics mainstream.I turn now to the more specificapproachwith whichI am associated,and for which I can speak with somewhatmore confidence.

Warren E. Miller,andDonaldF. Stokes, The 8. AngusCampbell,PhilipE. Converse, York:Wiley,1960;abridged AmericanVoter(New edition, 1964).Thequotationmarksare intendedto highlightthe fact that the authorswerefully awarethat theirstudyhad been stablehistorical context.Pages8-12of the unabridged carriedout withina short,relatively versionsupplythe caveatstypicallyignoredby critics. and the Development 9. JosephCooper, The Originsof the StandingCommittees of the ModernHouse (Houston:Rice UniversityPress, 1970). 10. Nelson Polsby, "The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives," AmericanPoliticalScienceReview,62 (1968):144-68. 11. H. DouglasPrice, "The Congressional Career-Then and Now," in Congressional Behavior,ed. Nelson Polsby (New York:RandomHouse, 1971).

110 Polity Forum RationalChoice Political Scientistsand HistoricalStudies Althoughcriticsoften implyotherwise,the rationalchoicerubricencomis that of passesa numberof distinctschools of thought.My perspective the Rochester-Carnegie-Mellon-Washington school, a University-Caltech largegroupthatincludesmost of thoseengagedin whatis typicallycalled Positive Political Theory (PPT) and many of those engaged in what call the positivetheory of institutions(PTI). Orrenand Skowronek12 Although PTI research sometimes is considered an alternativeto researchin other traditions,more often than not it is a complementary ratherthan competingapproach.The most importantthingto remember when readingan exampleof PTI is that, at heart, most PTI scholarsare theorists. Even if they write in clear English ratherthan mathematics, even if they presentprimarydata, even if they quote from documentary theorists. What does that mean? sources,they are still primarily First, it meansthat most PTI scholarsare not as interestedin a comof some realinstitutionor historicalphenomeunderstanding prehensive of some theoreticalprinciple non, so much as in a deeperunderstanding or logic that might be operatingin the specific institutionaland/or historical context. Examples include reelection logics, delegation logics, information and specializationlogics, deterrencelogics, commitment tendency,and so on. problems,enforcementproblems,the distributive Thereis a whole collectionof such ideas, principles,logics, and themes that are of interestto PTI folk. Second, if your interest is primarilytheoretical, then you do not of an historicalor institutionalphedemanda completeunderstanding nomenon. You may be quite satisfiedwith a partialunderstanding-an of those parts of the phenomenonthat illuminatethe understanding theoreticalprincipleof interest. If the principleturns of the operation interestin the institutional or irrelevant, be out to inapplicable phenomeIn a even ceases. non lessensor word, the substantive partof the studyis often subsidiary,more means than end. To cite an examplefamiliarto manyof you, BarryWeingastrecentlywrotea veryprovocativepaperon Senate.13 the importanceof the balancerule in the ante-bellum Manyof the a read it as would here paperaddressing breakup understandably you of the Union. In contrast,most of Weingast'sPTI colleaguesreadit as a
12. Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, "Beyond the Iconography of Order: Notes for a 'New Institutionalism,' " in The Dynamics of American Politics, ed. Lawrence Dodd and Calvin Jillson (Boulder: Westview, 1994). 13. Barry Weingast, "Institutions and Political Commitment: A New Political Economy of the American Civil War Era," unpublished manuscript, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1991.

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paper on the commitment principle-the breakup of the Union is a case that sheds light on the theoretical idea. Third, given the previous point, PTI scholars are more likely to "skip around," to follow their theoretical interests to other institutions and other times rather than to undertake more comprehensive analysis of any one institutional or historical phenomenon. For most PTI scholars, breadth trumps depth; understanding 90 percent of the variance in one case is not as significant an achievement as understanding 10 percent of the variance in each of nine cases, especially if the cases vary across time and place.14 So, someone unfamiliar with the PTI enterprise might look at PTI work and judge it to be narrowly focused and partial. That is perfectly true, and a valid criticism of PTI interpreted as history; but PTI is not intended to be history. Not everyone (especially serious historians!) may be persuaded by the preceding observations, so at the risk of self-indulgence let me illustrate them with a true account of my one foray into historical institutional studies. Once upon a time I was asked to prepare a paper on congressional delegation of power to regulatory agencies. There were several logics on the shelf. Public administration offered the traditional expertise and information logic (expert bureaucrats Were better than overworked and overwhelmed legislators). Ted Lowi had a pluralist ideological logic (legislators delegated because they were in thrall to a public philosophy that supported delegation).'s Some bureaucracy texts suggested a shift-the-responsibility logic (members of Congress used delegation to put some daylight between themselves and dangerous political decisions). But I thought that for the money I was getting, more was called for. So I began to hunt for ideas. I soon learned that the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the first major delegation of congressional regulatory authority. "Great," I thought, they couldn't just say "let's do it the way we always have"someone must have thought about what they were doing. As I read further I learned that the delegation question was one of the important issues that held up passage of the act for several years-the Senate insisted on an appointed commission, while the House held out for judicial disposition of individual complaints. "Terrific," I thought"surely, someone had thought about what they were doing." Con14. Strictlyspeaking,with only one case thereis no varianceto explain.This opens up versus explanationthat are beyond the scope of these argumentsabout understanding remarks.
15. Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism (New York: Norton, 1969).

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veniently, the presidents of the period were not giants, suggesting that legislative logics-my specialty-would be relevant. The original commissioned paper was only the beginning of a serious study. For several years I worked almost full-time on this project. I read articles published in the nineteenth century and books that had not been checked out since the 1930s (no big deal for most of you, but I'm a political scientist!). I copied and read more than 1200 pages of the Congressional Record. I hired RAs and mapped economic characteristics onto the congressional districts of the 1870s and 1880s. I did some preliminary statistical analysis. And then I quit. It became apparent to me that delegation logics didn't have much to do with passage of the ICA. It was a straight political trade of the kind that Mitchell, Moynihan, Foley, Rostenkowski and others might cut on health care a few months from now. If long-haul rates were to be kept low by prohibiting cartelization, short-haulers, who were stronger in the House, required assurances that they wouldn't have to cross-subsidize the long-haulers. The price for their support was a clear anti-discrimination provision to be enforced by private actions in the courts, not twisted by commissioners who had been confirmed by Republican Senates. Logrolls are interesting, of course, but there's no need to go back 100 years to find good examples. So, I moved on to other things.16 Now, I imagine that a true historian would have followed the story wherever it led, adjusting his or her guiding ideas accordingly. But for someone working in the PTI mode, the story was interesting mainly to the extent that it shed light on the particular theoretical idea that motivated the study. In sum, PTI scholars are not attempting to displace other kinds of historically oriented scholars; PTI scholars need them. PTI scholars value social science history precisely because most PTI scholars are not going to do the comprehensive, detailed historical research. Rather, they will rely on historians to describe the processes and institutions and identify relevant data. And for that purpose social scientific history is of greater value than more traditional varieties precisely because its practitioners are more systematic in their thinking and sensitive to general as well as unique factors at work in particular historical contexts.

of the the falsification 16. One questioner askedwhy I didn'twritean articlediscussing logics I had sought to apply. The short answeris that in PTI models the principles in a givenhisarelogicallytrue.The questionis only whether theyareapplicable developed toricalor institutionalsetting. In the ICA case, I concludedthat the delegationlogics I and commitment logics. initiallysoughtto applywereless relevantthan enforcement

Polity Forum Rational Choice Political Scientists and Institutional Studies


For PTI scholars, the term "institution" may refer to a formal or codified structure or an informal agreement or set of expectations. Some PTI scholars emphasize the role of institutions in generating equilibrium outcomes-what Shepsle terms "institutional equilibria"17in contrast to the more traditional behavioral or strategic equilibria. Formal institutions describe the resources of the players, their rights and powers, who is decisive, and so forth. And since most games have multiple equilibria, informal institutions (norms, expectations) are one possible explanation for why one equilibrium prevails over other logical possibilities. A newer line of PTI thinking views institutions as equilibria of an underlying game.'8 This perspective "endogenizes" institutions and makes them part of the outcome of the game-what Shepsle calls "equilibrium institutions." In plain words, PTI scholars see institutions as both causes and consequences. The very fact that institutions can shape behavior and outcomes makes it necessary to explain how they are created and sustained by rational actors who understand their importance. You will find PTI research on both sides of the equation, sometimes tracing out the effects of the institution, at other times trying to explain how the institution arises. Thus, for their own reasons, PTI scholars have joined those operating in other traditions in a renewed interest in historical and institutional phenomena. But if PTI scholars make use of historical and institutional scholarship, I must admit that they often interpret it in ways the original authors never intended. Intellectual differences between the PTI tradition and other schools of thought frequently emerge in differing interpretations of the same data. I will note three of them here. Most importantly, PTI research looks first and foremost at rational agency. That is a fundamental premise of the larger rational choice approach. PTI scholars work on the assumption that institutions serve a limited number of general purposes; therefore, institutions that appear different on the surface often are similar in what they accomplish.19
17. Kenneth A. Shepsle, "Institutional Equilibrium and Equilibrium Institutions," in Political Science: The Science of Politics, ed. Herbert F. Weisberg (New York: Agathon, 1986), pp. 51-81; Kenneth A. Shepsle, "Studying Institutions: Some Lessons from the Rational Choice Approach," Journal of Theoretical Politics, 1 (1989): 131-47. 18. Randall Calvert, "The Rational Theory of Social Institutions: Cooperation, Coordination, and Communication," unpublished manuscript, University of Rochester, 1993. 19. As this language suggests, PTI has certain things in common with old-fashioned structural-functionalism, and as I have observed, PTI scholars sometimes slip into teleological language.

114 Polity Forum Rational actors can be expected to create similar kinds of solutions across time and across cultures. PTI presumes commonality more than uniqueness, design more than accident. Second, PTI research typically takes preferences as given. Again, this is a standard part of the rational choice tradition. There are models of how beliefs change as a result of new information, but such models presume a set of stable "fundamental" preferences that are being discovered. Thus, PTI simply does not purport to explain large-scale shifts in individual orientations. That is not to say, however, that PTI does not purport to explain large-scale shifts in political outcomes. Quite on the contrary. The tools of PTI show how minor and/or incremental changes in preferences can be transformed by political institutions into major shifts. As Weingast puts it, "political outcomes are not a smooth function of public opinion."20 Third, PTI scholars lean toward explanations based on interests as opposed to those based on ideas. Probably this has a great deal to do with the roots of PTI in economics, and probably it reflects a proper concern about the ease of applying but the difficulty of evaluating explanations based on ideas, culture, and similar nonobservables. Certainly PTI people believe that ideas play a role in politics,21 but that role is more often viewed as supplemental than fundamental. To put it another way, ideas are used as justifications, rationalizations, even instruments of persuasion, by those seeking to advance some interest. For that reason ideas and interests are usually intertwined. Interests spawn ideas to rationalize and legitimate them, and ideas unsupported by interests are more likely to lose out in the competition against ideas that are. In addition to the empirical interconnection that makes ideas and interests difficult to separate analytically, the distinction between ideas and interests can be exaggerated. PTI scholars do not insist that all interests be material. For instance, PTI scholars would discuss the gay rights movement not only in terms of gays' desire for better jobs, housing, and other tangibles, but also for intangibles like security and even social status. The rhetoric of the movement would be treated as instrumental, a
20. Weingast, "Institutions and Political Commitment." Others have made similar observations. For example, longtime SSHA member David Brady suggests in Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988) that the change in popular sentiments associated with the upheavals of the 1850s and 1890s are not as great as proponents of critical realignment ideas claim. He shows how the electoral system magnified relatively small changes in popular sentiments to produce the results we see. 21. William Riker, The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Polity Forum 115 strategy intended to maximize attainmentof the foregoing interests. Thus some variablesmight be simultaneouslyregardedas interestsby PTI people and as ideas by others. Summary In a numberof socialsciencesubfieldsthereis a renewedinterestin institutional and historical phenomena. I think this renewed interest has multiplecauses-beginning with importantchangesin the worldaround and the us, but also includingthe playingout of olderresearch programs desireof youngerscholarsto plow new ground. Whetherthis changein monikerlike "new institutionalism" is emphasisdeservesa high-faluting debatable,but the words probablydo no harm. Scholarsoperatingout of the rationalchoice approachare well-represented in this new institutionalism, using much that other traditionshave contributed,and we hope, contributingsomethingin return.