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POL S 583 A: Economic Theories of Politics

Meeting Time: 
Th 1:30pm - 4:20pm
SMI 111
Prof. Anthony Gill
Anthony Gill

Syllabus Description:

You can find a copy of the syllabus here (final draft as of December 28, 2021).  

A long, long time ago, political scientists used to be called political economists.  Economists used to be called political economists too. In fact, intellectuals prior to the 20th century dabbled in all sorts of social science-y topics such as sociology, history, anthropology, and even philosophy!  But that was before the advent of highly specialized online journals and the intense drive to "publish or perish."  And then, 'round about the early 1900s the division of academic labor went into third gear and folks divided themselves into departments with silly names such as "political science department" and "department of economics."  Separated by a giant lawn on the quad, it looked as if scholars entrenched in their own bailiwicks would never meet for lunch or even wave hello to one another.  Other than two global wars, several major social revolutions, the prohibition of alcohol (and subsequent birth of NASCAR), a widespread economic depression, fluoridation of the water supply, and Led Zeppelin, nothing much else happened and the world was pretty boring. But then, around the middle of the twentieth century, something wondrous happened -- these two long-lost partners began to discover one another!  The impetus for this re-marriage came mostly from economists, with folks like Duncan Black, Kenneth Arrow, Anthony Downs, James Buchanan and a few others exploring an economic approach to political decision-making that became known as the "public (social) choice school."  The romantic rediscovery was further advanced by the related intellectual development of rational choice theory, with individuals such as Gary Becker and Mancur Olson taking this fairly basic "economic" view of human behavior into new territories.  Political scientists, a bit slow on the uptick because they weren't that good at math at the time, began absorbing this approach into their own research in the 1970s, with momentum picking up in the 1980s, where your fluffy little professor gets injected into the story by choosing UCLA, a rationalist hotbed and place where the economics and political science departments were on friendly terms, for graduate school.  Since that last quarter of the 20th century, the "economic approach to politics" has been applied in a wide range of empirical territory, including legislative behavior, international conflict and civil wars, and even (gasp!) religion.  Of course, none of this came without its share of criticisms because that is what scholars do best - criticize!  Economics and political science began (re-)discovering psychology and a behavioral approach that got its kick-start with opinion survey methodology and technology expanded into the field of experimental social science and modifications of rational choice theory that became known as "bounded rationality." 


The purpose of this course is to introduce students to some of the basic logic and foundational writings within the new economics of politics.  Not surprisingly, given that we are more than a half-century beyond the advent of this approach, and given the explosion in social scientific publishing, we cannot cover everything of major importance.  Indeed, we can barely scratch the surface in a ten-week course.  As such, we will dabble our toes into the water of rational choice, public (social) choice, collective action theory, and some of the contending views of the state that have grown from this economic approach.  And we will finish off with some "odd applications" of economic theory to demonstrate that while rationality might be bounded, the use of economic logic is really only constrained by a scholar's imagination.  Sign up for the cookies but stay for the intellectual journey.

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(In reality, there was never 100% separation between the fields of political science and economics.  A few people kept plodding along trying to understand both politics and markets at the same time, but they were seen as "crackpots and weirdos."  Therefore, some of the introductory paragraph is hyperbole, but hyperbole designed to make a compelling introductory paragraph.)

Catalog Description: 
Problems of public goods provision and collective action. Collective action theories and applications as well as critical review of the concept of rationality.
Last updated: 
November 19, 2021 - 2:27pm