William Riker’s “Rationalist” Federalism

Authored by: Benjamin Kleinerman

The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism

Print publication date:  August  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671312
eBook ISBN: 9781315612966
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043454


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Although William Riker contributed much to the study of federalism, he is better known for his contributions to and development of the more general field of rational choice theory in the study of politics. While arising out of the study of economics, Riker was perhaps not simply boasting when he wrote: “I believe our group at Rochester … was the core of the political science part of the movement.” To a significant degree, then, one can neither summarize nor evaluate his account of federalism without at the same time discussing rational choice theory. To elucidate his theory of federalism, we must understand something about his viewpoint on the usefulness of “theory,” as he understood it, in the study of politics. That being said, to a significant degree, Riker’s interest in federalism predates his interest in rational choice theory – the latter interest, as he also admits, did not develop until after he had already written a considerable amount in the political science field (Riker 1997, 194). Thus, one can justly say that Riker understood federalism apart from, or at least without the initial help of, his adoption of the method of explanation employed by rational choice. For this reason, Riker’s understanding of federalism may cast as much light on his approach to rational choice as vice versa. In fact, Riker’s understanding of federalism not only casts light on his approach to rational choice, it also helps to reveal both the strengths and the limitations of this theoretical approach to the study of politics.

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