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Moe: Power and Political Institutions

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Moe. 2005. Power and Political Institutions. Perspectives on Politics.

In Brief

New Institutionalism involves studying how institutions resolve problems of collective action and collective choice. Thus, it implies that institutions facilitate cooperative action. Yet in the real world, institutions are frequently designed not to facilitate cooperation but rather to impose one person's (or group's) will on the rest of the population. There is a difference between cooperation and coercion (i.e. power). And the new institutional has obscured this difference, causing us to neglect "power."

We treat institutions too much as the product of cooperation, but we neglect the coercive side of the story. For example, McNollGast (1987, 1989 correctly identify the mutually beneficial agreement among lobbyists and legislators to impose new rules (to get desired bureaucratic outcoems), and the cooperative (if implicit) agreement between legislators and bureaucrats (so that bureaucrats actually follow the rules). But they ignore the coercive side of the story: The result is forced upon the losing side because of the 'power' of the majority.

Author's abstract: "Rational choice theory tends to view political institutions as structures of voluntary cooperation that resolve collective action problems and benefit all concerned. Yet the political process often gives rise to institutions that are good for some people and bad for others, depending on who has the power to impose their will. Political institutions may be structures of cooperation, but they may also be structures of power--and the theory does not tell us much about this. As a result, it gives us a one-sided and overly benign view of what political institutions are and do. This problem is not well understood, and indeed is not typically seen as a problem at all. For there is a widespread sense in the rational choice literature that, because power is frequently discussed, it is an integral part of the theory and just as fundamental as cooperation. Confusion on this score has undermined efforts to right the imbalance. My purpose here is to clarify the analytic roles that power and cooperation actually play in this literature, and to argue that a more balanced theory--one that brings power from its periphery to its very core--is both necessary and entirely possible."

Comments and Criticism

If a criminal demands "your money or your life" (and follows through), he makes you worse off. No matter which option you choose, you would have preferred the old status quo to the new one. Moe uses this analogy to argue that we must pay attention to power (the criminals), though he concedes exactly the point that bothers me: This is still voluntary choice. Sure, one side forces a change in the status quo, but you can still use voluntary models of rational choice to model the outcome. Why, then, do we need to change the model? I don't understand what he would have us do other than concede, "And the losers get screwed."