Rational Choice Model and Rational Egoism

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Realists assume that actors are rational egoists- that they make decisions based on their own well-being. This allows them to generate predictions despite little background or case-specific information.

Robert O. Keohane on rational choice and rational egoism

Keohane realizes that the rational egoist model is valuable in its ability to provide us with hypothetical explanations from which to work, but also acknowledges that this type of analysis generally does not take into account many important factors in decision making. He accepts the premise that actors are rational egoists, but also allows for the impacts of bounded rationality in the form of external and social factors. Essentially, “any rational choice analysis has to assume the prior context of power, expectations, values, and conventions.”

One issue with the approach of purely rational egoism is discord. Keohane points out that although the typical explanation for discord is that states have diverging interests, empirical evidence shows that although states often cannot agree even when they have converging interests. This fact must lead us to analyze events according to more factors than the simple fact that states act in their own self-interest, he says. It’s not enough, to assume complete rationality or egoism in policy-making; there are quite a few complex factors affecting states decision-making.

There are several reasons why rational individual actors may not be able to meet rational or optimal solutions even if there is some degree of convergence of interests. The classic case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma can be applied to collective action on the international scale as well; sometimes, both actors will defect even though it’s not in their best interest to do so. Assuming that states will react entirely rationally ignores the fact that actions may not be entirely voluntary; states may be constrained by power dynamics, and prior constraints matter greatly. Similarly, a propensity for altruism, the ability of a state value long-term over short term objectives, and the willingness of the opponent to later retaliate against any possible defector are all also factors affecting a state’s decision to act a certain way.

Therefore, although the realist approach of rational choice analysis and viewing the state as a rational egoist can be a valuable tool in predicting and understanding policy decisions, Keohane says it is best used when combined with an understanding of the political climate of each state.

- Keohane, Robert. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.