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The Role of Self-Interest in Political Decision Making

Instructor: Charlotte Bunch

Charlotte has been teaching secondary education for five years. She has a bachelor's degree in Secondary Education and a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

Explore the role of self-interest in the political process. Learn how the role of self-interest of voters, elected officials, and public employees affect the creation of public policies.

The Rational-Choice Theory

Have you ever sat in a restaurant and attempted to choose between eating a pancake covered in fruit or savory bacon and eggs? You may begin making a pros and cons list about which breakfast option you should choose. You are considering the costs (sugar and cholesterol) versus the benefits (fruit and protein). Which breakfast might you vote for? Every person has different needs and interests when it comes to their breakfast foods, as well as with their political decisions.

The focus of individual self-interest, or what you do to benefit yourself the most, extends across a variety of different areas of study. From the economist Adam Smith to the political scientist Anthony Downs, the study of how self-interest relates to specific fields of research has been of upmost importance. Downs, the author of An Economic Theory of Democracy, developed the Rational-Choice Theory to explain how individuals participate in politics. The Rational-Choice Theory is widely used by political scientists to describe the idea that all people use rational thinking before making decisions. This theory assumes that individuals will act within their own self-interest, and that individuals consider both the costs and benefits of their different options (think of the pros and cons list from the breakfast scenario above). Citizens, elected officials and public employees all use their self-interest to make decisions in order to obtain a desired outcome.

Voter Self-Interest

Let's begin by focusing our attention on voter self-interest. According to Downs, voters want to increase the chances of their interests being implemented into public policy. Public Policies are all things that the government decides to do, whether it is making a law or a regulation that is created. If an individual strongly believes in one topic, then they will use their vote to choose a candidate, or political party, that most strongly sides with their views.

For example, let's say you live in the city of Urbansville where the state cut funding in developing a more efficient public transportation system. Since you take a bus to and from work every day, your interest in public transit has drastically increased. With an election for your local representative approaching, you feel a need to find a candidate that has similar views. Here you are using your personal interest in your bus route to find a candidate that can influence a public policy that will benefit you.

Elected Officials and Political Parties' Self-Interest

The Rational-Choice Theory also demonstrates how elected officials and political parties choose policies that appeal to voters. Under this theory, parties want to win positions in government so they choose policies that a large amount of voters appeal to in the hopes they will get members of their party elected.

Let's return to Urbansville and the political parties, Manatees and Antelopes, who have candidates running for office. The Manatees recently collected data showing that voters strongly support increased state funding for public transportation (a cause you strongly support). This data caused the Manatees to adopt this policy idea, and their candidate promoted this in their campaign. This demonstrates how the views of voters can influence officials and political parties to influence public policy.

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