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Rational Choice Theory Takes on the Arab Revolutions

[Image from Google Images] [Image from Google Images]

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, "How Tyrants Endure," political science professors Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith offer a rational choice perspective on the Arab revolutions. It's a fairly short article, but given its large claims and the fact that Bueno De Mesquita does significant consulting for the Pentagon and CIA, it deserves some critical attention.

Briefly, rational choice theory, of which Bueno De Mesquita is a major proponent, posits that individuals, including political actors, make decisions based on "rational" self-interest. These interests are often material in nature. As in microeconomics, individuals attempt to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. From these basic suppositions, practitioners claim to be able to explain and, crucially, predict political events — whether it be elections in the United States or revolutions in a developing country — using mathematical models and quantitative data, without having to have a particular expertise in the subject society. 

There is no shortage of critiques of rational choice theory, as well as rejoinders from its advocates. One of its most glaring weaknesses is its inability to explain collective action, as has taken place in the Arab world the past six months. How is it that an individual — thinking in terms of his or her individual costs and benefits — would risk serious injury, arrest, beatings by pro-regime thugs, and even death in order to take part in demonstrations against an entrenched authoritarian regime using all of its coercive instruments to suppress a popular uprising? Why wouldn't she/he just sit it out?

The rational choice adherent might answer this question by explaining that the individual protestor perceived certain individual benefits that could accrue by taking part in the demonstrations, such as increased prestige in one's neighborhood or joining a strong social network with all of its benefits. One theoretical problem with such an explanation is that it requires the social scientist to reverse the methodological vantage point and view the events and an individual's decision making from the perspective of that individual and the individual's perceived interests. To adopt this approach is to quite severely undermine the supposed explanatory power of a commonly accepted, externally defined (by the political scientist) notion of rationality. The problem is that if rationality is flexible and context-based, rational choice loses its predictive power and can only serve as a post-facto tool to explain what has happened. If one standard of rationality is used to evaluate the decisions by non-protestors to sit at home and watch Al-Jazeera while a different standard is used to explain the actions of those on the barricades, rationality — the formalistic idea of an interest-maximizing individual — entirely loses any explanatory or predictive utility.

Another important aspect of rational choice theory is that it posits unitary, decision-making actors, whether it is individuals deciding to vote or or not to vote, political organizations, or heads of state. This enables a focus on decision-making as the main political transaction or process-event. Movements are seen as being created by conglomerations of individual, rational decisions, and those movements are in turn treated as unitary actors. Rational choice theorists do not claim that their perspective necessarily denies the existence of more complex realities. Rather, they insist that their theory of rational action is sufficient to predict decisions and events. But the insistence on decision-making by unitary actors leaves out a more nuanced and informative analysis of political events.

Rational choice, then, because it is individual- and cost/benefit-focused, has difficulty explaining social movements, political identities and allegiances, and collective action. In "How Tyrants Endure," Bueno De Mesquita and Smith stay away from an analysis of the revolutions themselves and focus only on the decision making of individual Arab leaders, asking "why certain dictators survive while others fall." But the rational choice perspective fails them here too. Their simplistic answer is: "despotic rulers stay in power by rewarding a small group of loyal supporters, often composed of key military officers, senior civil servants and family members and clansmen." These supporters suppress opposition to the regime, but "they only carry out this messy, unpleasant task if they are well rewarded. Autocrats therefore need to ensure a continuing flow of benefits to their cronies."

Going further, and addressing the Egyptian case, the authors argue that Mubarak's age and apparent feeble health combined with "serious economic problems,” including rising grain and fuel prices, unemployment — "particularly among the educated" — and a "substantial decline in American aid" to undermine the loyalty of Mubarak's military backers, who "worried that he was no longer a reliable source of revenue." But there is no reason to think the army acted on this basis.

It is highly doubtful that high command decision making was based on a flow of cash from Mubarak's inner circle through them to their officers in a giant patronage network based on cash. Certainly the military has been given many benefits by the regime since the 1950s, and various perks for officers are well known, as are the military's various profitable business interests. Had these been reduced to any significant degree, as claimed by the authors, military opposition and tensions with Mubarak and his inner circle would have surfaced before the uprisings took place, and the army would have deserted the regime long before it did.

On the contrary, the military high command generally had good relations with Mubarak, who, as a former air force commander, certainly knew and advanced the careers of most of them. The military stuck with him until the last day or two before his resignation. Finding themselves between an increasingly unpopular and illegitimate leader and a broad and growing popular revolt, concerns about resource flows or revenue (assuming those were concerns at all) certainly came far behind worries about the army's relationship with the people, its hard-earned reputation as a neutral and legitimate force for national unity, and its own organizational coherence, all of which would have been seriously undermined had it openly used force in support of the reviled president and his inner circle. Yes, of course, the military had its own institutional interests and made calculations on that basis. But those interests almost certainly were not significantly resource-based and could only be ascertained and evaluated on the basis of knowledge about the country, as many Egypt experts quite expertly did throughout the crisis.      

The authors are also off track on some of their assumptions, such as their evaluation of the state of the Egyptian economy. A quick internet search reveals that after decades of stagnant growth, Egypt's real GDP growth has been 4.5% or higher every year starting in 2005. The decline that took place in 2010 still left real GDP growth at 4.5%, a much better performance than the United States and other industrialized countries that year. While it is obvious that these benefits were not shared widely, the regime clearly had resources to spend on its security services throughout the past decade. The notion that a substantial drop in resources led to a drop in goodies flowing through an imagined patronage network in the military is far-fetched in every respect.

The problem for the rational choice model is that to really explain the specific decisions that took place, it has to explain why they were taken. In Egypt, the key question is: why did the military abandon Mubarak? To explain why without actually getting into the nature of the Egyptian regime, its component parts, their inter-relationships and relationship with the general public — in other words, without actually knowing something about the country — is a fool’s errand. The Bueno De Mesquita and Smith thesis is a pre-cooked theory applied in extremely reductionist fashion to a complex and dynamic country. They come up with some possible reasons for a resource flow reduction to the army, but their explanations are logically flawed, as are their assumptions.

In fact, Bueno De Mesquita's and Smith's starting focus of analysis — the military as the regime's protectors — is incorrect for both Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, it was the police and other state security elements that had been the true instruments of repression for the two regimes. In neither country did they turn against the president. Rather, a more neutral third force in the military stepped in against both.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith did not mention Israel and Palestine in the article, but it is worth taking a look at what Bueno De Mesquita said on the subject a few years ago. In an interview with "Good" Magazine in 2007, "The New Nostradamus," Bueno de Mesquita evinced a truly bizarre understanding of, and solution for, the conflict. He starts out with the following statement: "In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain't going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason."

This is a rather strange utterance from someone who specializes in international relations. In fact, flawed as the Oslo process has been since its inception, for significant periods it is fair to say that a certain amount of trust did emerge, enough to enable a range of negotiations to take place throughout the 1990s. So it's an inaccurate understanding of what happened. But more crucially, trust between adversaries is never something that exists on its own. It is built by face-to-face negotiations, verifiable agreements, and institutional arrangements that support it. This is how US-Soviet relations were managed during the Cold War. Although there was never full trust between the two countries — there never is in relations between states — enough was created through the various summits, arms limitation talks, and bilateral and multilateral security arrangements in Europe to create confidence on both sides that the other was not intent on war.

But the clincher in terms of the credibility of Bueno de Mesquita's understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict is his prescription for a solution.

In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don't come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It's completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that's that.

This statement is so devoid of reality, one hardly knows where to begin. No Palestinian economist would give anywhere near this level of importance to tourism, and the Israeli state, intent as it is on seizing ever more Palestinian land and suppressing Palestinian opposition, does not need additional tourism revenue, especially if it had to share it with the Palestinians. No mention here of borders, refugees, or Jerusalem, which nearly all Israelis and Palestinians agree are the key issues. No, in many ways, this is very close to the existing Netanyahu approach, which calls for Palestinian economic growth for an undefined transitional period in order to avoid talking about the substantive issues, while it continues to grab more land in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Rational choice theory, as Bueno De Mesquita deploys it, constitutes an instrumental approach to predicting the future in order to control it. It meshes easily with the assumptions of the US foreign policy establishment about the need to project US power and manage global affairs (as well as the right to do so). It is not surprising, then, that the CIA and Pentagon have employed Bueno de Mesquita and his model. As the world's strongest power, the United States has a clearly demonstrated tendency to take unilateral steps, or steps taken in concert with a small number of other powers, to impose solutions and behavioral norms without taking the interests of other countries and peoples into consideration. The idea of a scientific paradigm that allows for predictions of foreign leaders’ actions is clearly attractive for some elements of the US government.

Here in the "west," discussion about rational choice and other theoretical approaches to understanding the Middle East is about more than just which approach is "correct." It is also a debate about which kind of knowledge is valued. Do we in the United States value a quasi-scientific epistemology that claims to be able to predict events in the Middle East with only minimal knowledge of Middle Eastern societies, or do we seek an understanding of these countries through a process of dialogue and engagement with those societies?

Certainly a more nuanced and sensitive approach to knowledge, based on an understanding “from within” of Middle East societies (or those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America), can also be used with an intent to control when deployed by the United States, particularly in a country under occupation such as Iraq. But the development of knowledge and understanding in a collaborative fashion with people from the region is — at a minimum — a necessary first step towards building a non-coercive relationship between the United States and the people of the Middle East.

[A Romanian translation of this article, by Alexander Ovsov, can be found here]

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2 comments for "Rational Choice Theory Takes on the Arab Revolutions"


Mr. Sisken doesn't seem to have a particularly sophisticated view of rational choice theory - such as his claim that rational choice theory cannot account for social movements (he doesn't seem to have read Sidney Tarrow). Collective action problems, the bread and butter of rational choice, are central in the rational choice lens of explaining authoritarian durability and the mechanisms of social and political upheaval. His claim that "if rationality is flexible and context-based, rational choice loses its predictive power" also seems ignorant of normative weightings within a rational choice framework by Bob Keohane, perceptual work by Robert Jervis, or definitions of rational choice by folks such as Lake and Powell that limit assumptions on the content of rationality. His claim that rational choice modeling is always based on "individuals" seems to leapfrog over foundational work applying rational choice to institutional settings (North, Schelling).

His contention of Mesquita's ignorance of Egyptian politics is mirrored by his own. While he is right that internal security services maintained most of the regime's suppression, it is shockingly ignorant to call the military in Egypt "neutral." It is common knowledge that the civilian government is propped up and intertwined with the interests of the military (see Steve Cook - Ruling but not Governing, as an example). To ignore the military's vested economic interests in the regime's maintenance (through massive US military-to-military funding and the economic benefits of reserved domains of economic activity that have been written on by scholars such as Eva Bellin and Tamara Wittes as fundamentally stalling Egypt's economic liberalization) is to miss the very mechanism that swayed the military's position. Sisken contends that:

"Finding themselves between an increasingly unpopular and illegitimate leader and a broad and growing popular revolt, concerns about resource flows or revenue (assuming those were concerns at all) certainly came far behind worries about the army's relationship with the people, its hard-earned reputation as a neutral and legitimate force for national unity, and its own organizational coherence, all of which would have been seriously undermined had it openly used force in support of the reviled president and his inner circle."

Yet he does not recognize that being between an "increasingly unpopular and illegitimate leader and a broad growing revolt" has potentially disastrous long-term economic consequences for the military - as an institution, and for its personnel. A simple game tree would clearly demonstrate that a rationally-thinking military leadership would consider mid-long range domestic instability and its domestic and international costs a threat to its survival - and solvency matters to survival.

Sisken also demonstrates a curious ignorance of developmental economics for someone who claims to undermine the assumptions of generalists.

"The authors are also off track on some of their assumptions, such as their evaluation of the state of the Egyptian economy. A quick internet search reveals that after decades of stagnant growth, Egypt's real GDP growth has been 4.5% or higher every year starting in 2005. The decline that took place in 2010 still left real GDP growth at 4.5%, a much better performance than the United States and other industrialized countries that year."

Apparently, a quick internet search does not inform you that a country as undeveloped as Egypt should be growing at more like 9-10% a year (you can check out Alissa's 2007 Carnegie paper "The Political Economy of Reform in Egypt," as well as Srinivasan's 2005 article "The Challenges of Economic Reform in Egypt," and the UNDP reports), that poverty affects over 40% of the population while some 20% of Egyptians live in absolute poverty, that inflation is over 20%, and that public debt in 2007 was nearly 80% of GDP. You can make causal inquiries as to the economy's causal relationship with public dissatisfaction and inclination to protest, but I'd say economic factors are probably a safe bet (not to mention that Egyptians today regularly cite the poor economy as a primary grievance against the state).

Finally, his juxtaposition of "quasi-scientific epistemology" and "dialogue and engagement with those societies" leaves one baffled about his understanding of political science as a discipline, as well as his apparent ignorance of something political scientists call "field work." Firstly, intellectual frameworks for analyzing social and political phenomena do not preclude "dialogue and engagement." Political scientists do the first, diplomats do the second. More importantly, he argues in his final paragraph that "the idea of a scientific paradigm that allows for predictions of foreign leaders’ actions is clearly attractive for some elements of the US government" - does not seem to demonstrate any awareness that predictive power is also a major component of the modern field of political science (not to mention that his stock broker, Google advertiser, and weatherman all rely on related statistical modeling to understand and predict consumer behavior and natural phenomena). He also makes a common error assuming that theoretical models tell you something about human nature, and that they tell you all you need to know. Positive political theory makes no claims on human nature - or the important nuances of human interaction. Theories and methodologies, as Lake and Powell say, “by their very nature, privilege some forms of explanation over others and are, in effect, bets about what will prove to be fruitful ways to attack certain sets of problems.” Theories mean nothing without good field work, and the conclusions culled from good field work without rigor or a theoretical framework to process the data are often reduced to the far less transparent and testable perceptual, intellectual, and experiential whims of the observer.

Steve wrote on June 25, 2011 at 05:10 PM

I thank Steve for his comments. We could argue about rational choice and social movements for a long time. I will agree with him that rational choice theorists think they can explain the emergence and actions of social movements. My contention is simply that a notion of rationality based on the material interests of individuals or movements cannot explain social mobilizations and state actions as we've witnessed the past half year in the Arab world. To the extent that definitions of rationality are relaxed and reworked to consider existing realities, that is more interesting. Ahlan wa sahlan! But that brings us into the realm of nuance and local knowledge that undermines the claims of people like Bueno De Mesquita who claim quite proudly that they don't really need to understand much about a certain country to make any number of predictions.

On the matter of Egyptian politics, Steve is inaccurately characterizing what I wrote. I did not write that the Egyptian military was neutral. I wrote that it had a "hard-earned reputation as a neutral and legitimate force for national unity," neutral in the minds of many protesters as expressed in many chants and hand written on many signs. Neutral as well in how it perceived itself or wished to be perceived. (I agree that it is certainly part and parcel of the regime before and after Mubarak's downfall). I also acknowledged its economic interests. And I agree that an outbreak of more serious violence would have had economic consequences for the military. But to assert that these economic interests were the driving force in the military's decision making is far-fetched. A military crackdown on the protesters or some other violent turn of events would have had far graver consequences for the military than the loss of economic resource flows. This is a good example of the shortcomings of rational choice, at least as Bueno De Mesquita deploys it. The conclusion -- economic considerations of one sort of another as driving a decision -- is determined by the theory, not by an investigation of what was actually going on.

On Egypt's economic growth, I think Steve brings in some important data and there is clearly wide agreement among Middle East scholars that economic realities were a major cause of the uprisings. But contrary to the implication of his argument, by criticizing rational choice's material basis for actions, I am in no way denying that economics can play an important role in the mobilization of opposition to the Egyptian regime. It clearly did. My point in bringing in Egyptian GDP figures was only to demonstrate that Bueno De Mesquita's assumption about reduced resource flows to the military was not based on reliable data...or any data apparently. The incidence of absolute and relative poverty in Egypt is a very important topic. But that's not at all what my argument was about.

I think Steve captures the philosophical gulf in political science quite nicely when he writes that "positive political theory makes no claims on human nature - or the important nuances of human interaction." From the point of view of "rational choicists" and their game theory and statistical modeling allies, the aim is to do "science" by constructing testable theoretical propositions and frameworks in the political science version of a "clean room" devoid of political values and other messy human constructs that make it difficult to control variables and collect objective data. But in doing so, in the view of the rational choice skeptics, the essence and richness of human action is bleached out. Political trends are loaded with normative meaning and implications and for this reason are not at all like weather patterns or other natural scientific phenomena.

And in the final analysis, Steve's proposition about positive political science is actually not accurate. For rational choice theory does indeed make a claim--a very ambitious claim--about human behavior: that people or political units follow essentially the same, one-dimensional calculus of maximizing their individual benefits whether they are shopping, joining a social movement, or suppressing an uprising. When we're talking about political action by humans, there is no analytical clean room.

Dan Sisken wrote on June 28, 2011 at 10:15 PM

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