Reimagining Government: Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Democratic Theory

Jacob Jensen

4-5.30pm, 15th May

PSH 314, Goldsmiths

This paper addresses the genesis and development of the rational-choice approach to politics. It advances three arguments. Firstly, rational-choice theories of politics emerged in response to the mid-twentieth century crisis of American democratic theory. Rational-choice theories were analytical and programmatic attempts to overcome the perennial problem of the public, arguing that politics and governmental processes ought to approximate the perfectly competitive market. Secondly, in the process, rational-choice theorists challenged traditional political theories of voting, interest groups, and public administration, arguing that these theories were idealist delusions. However, rational-choice theories are equally idealistic. Whether defined in terms of consistency, maximization, self-interest, or a combination of the three, rational-choice theory carries moral implications. Thirdly, from the beginning, rational-choice theories of politics were caught in a persistent tension between individualism and institutionalism. Unable to explain the existence of social institutions, it eventually gave way to the transaction-cost theory of new institutionalist economics, which allowed for more approximate (and thus programmatic) comparisons between governmental processes and the institutional structure of firms.

Jacob Jensen is a PhD candidate at Aarhus University, Denmark, and currently a Visiting Fellow at PERC.