Structured and Unstructured Institutions
I think of institutions that are robust over time and lend themselves to comparisons across settings, as structured. They persist in roughly the same form from year to year, and their similarities to and differences from objects sharing their label in other places also persist.7 Thus, the US Congress or the New York Assembly, or the Irish Dail are structured in this sense. So, too, is a parliamentary cabinet, a judicial court, an administrative bureau, a regulatory agency, a central bank, an electoral regime, even a political party, a royal court, or an army.
Rational choice institutionalism has explored many of these. There is surely variation among the myriad instances of any one of these structured institutions, but there are also powerful central tendencies. This is what induces us to group them together and to think it sensible to compare them
Other institutions are less structured. Like structured institutions, they may be described as practices and recognized by the patterns they induce, but they are more amorphous and implicit rather than formalized. Norms, coordination activity, cooperative arrangements, and collective action are instances of what I have in mind. Senatorial courtesy, for example, is a norm of the US Senate effectively giving a senator a veto on judicial appointments in his or her state.
Seniority was a norm of both chambers of the US Congress for most of the twentieth century, establishing queues or ladders in congressional committees on which basis privileged positions—committee and subcommittee chairs, the order of speaking and questioning in hearings, access to staff, etc.—were assigned.8 Neither of these norms is a formal rule of the institutions.
Probably the single biggest success of the rational choice institutionalism program is the analysis of structured institutions. There are several factors that facilitate rigorous analysis and thus account for this success.
First, politicians in these settings are selected in a relatively well-defined way election to legislatures or party pieces, appointment to courts, regulatory agencies, or higher executive posts. Politicians may thus be thought of as agents of (s)electors (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, and Morrow 2003). Their activities while in oYce will be motivated in part by the objectives of the (s)electorate see below. Second, politician objectives can be specified with some precision, due in part to selection effects
The Archimedian lever of rational choice institutionalism is provided by the structure of structured institutions. This structure embeds the logic of optimization in a strategic context. The context of unstructured institutions is more Xuid, providing a less Wrm foundation for analysis. Many more things are possible; many more contingencies need to be accounted for. However, considerable progress has been made.