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When It’s Rational to be Irrational

The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order

by Jon Elster
Cambridge University Press, 311 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences

by Jon Elster
Cambridge University Press, 184 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Solomonic Judgments: Studies in the Limitations of Rationality

by Jon Elster
Cambridge University Press, 232 pp., $13.95 (paper)

We know, according to Pascal, that the heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about. Poets have sided with the theologians, agreeing that God speaks to the humble heart, and not to the arrogant intellect. Lately, the intellectuals have been stealing their critics’ clothing. Economists, philosophers, logicians, and theorists of “rational choice”—of whom Jon Elster is one of the most prominent—have begun to tell us that it is more rational to be irrational than rational. Their grounds are hardly traditional ones. It is not the voice of God but the calculations of reason that tell us not to listen to reason. It is not a high-minded alternative to economic reasoning but economic reasoning itself that tells persons who want to “maximize their utilities” that they will succeed only if they do not try.1

Elster’s Solomonic Judgments, for example, argues that judges in child custody cases who try to do the best for all parties would often do better to toss a coin instead. Elster knows that this sounds paradoxical. For he is not suggesting that the judge who follows his advice will be guided by the hand of God; quite the contrary. The result will indeed be accidental. The point is rather that there are situations in which the conscious attempt to achieve the outcome we want goes so thoroughly wrong that in those situations, it is better to toss a coin instead. The paradox vanishes when we recognize that child custody cases are miserable for everyone concerned, especially for the luckless child at the center of the case, and that the damage worsens as the case goes on.

Often, Elster argues, the damage done by prolonging the legal process will be greater than any damage done by a slightly worse choice between the warring parents. Tossing a coin shortens the process, reduces the damage, and produces as good a result as we can hope for. There is no guarantee that it will produce the best possible outcome—but the whole point of Elster’s argument is that the search for the best possible outcome is self-defeating. If the best possible outcome had been obvious, the judge would have been derelict not to choose it at once. Once it is sufficiently unobvious, tossing a coin cuts everyone’s losses.

Jon Elster has made a considerable reputation out of exploring the paradoxical results of apparently rational behavior. As a multidisciplinary cosmopolitan, he has been equally at home in Oslo, Paris, Oxford, and Chicago, and among logicians, economists, political theorists, and applied social scientists. He is a Norwegian of social-democratic inclinations who pursued his graduate study in Paris with Raymond Aron and subsequently became a professor in the ultra-Marxist stronghold of the University of Vincennes. There his closest colleague was Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser’s best known and most original disciple.

Since then, Elster has divided his time between the political science department at the University of Chicago, the Collège de France, and the University of Oslo, and has poured out a stream of essays on the limits of rational behavior, and the problems these pose for the social scientist and the policy maker. His earliest work was on Leibniz and the origins of capitalism. Logic and Society (1978) and Ulysses and the Sirens (1979) were the first books of his to appear in English, and were immediately recognized as something out of the ordinary. They were followed by Sour Grapes (1983), and then by the comprehensive demolition of the best-loved parts of Marx’s oeuvre in Making Sense of Marx (1985). It might more accurately have been titled “Making Mincemeat of Marx.”2 Somehow Elster has found time to serve on the commission into the Swedish trade union movement that provided him with the empirical evidence on which The Cement of Society is based, as well as to edit several volumes of essays, and to lecture, apparently simultaneously, to audiences half a globe apart.

Elster’s work is very highly regarded among philosophers and social scientists, but it is not easy to explain its importance. Unlike many social and political theorists who are briefly fashionable and are later seen to be all hot air and bluster, Elster is not given to large, programmatic utterances. Both his prose and his intellectual style are essentially atomic, carefully delineated problems are tackled paragraph by paragraph, and his books are compendia of such puzzles and their solutions—or increasingly, as in his recent books, the acknowledgment that there isn’t a solution.

One thing that excites his colleagues’ admiration is the deft and imaginative way he deals with the intellectual puzzles in which economists and logicians delight. What sets him apart from other practitioners in the field, however, is his eye for their larger implications. Sour Grapes, for instance, is about what its title suggests. The fox in Aesop’s fable tried to seize an attractive bunch of grapes, failed, and then announced that he had not really wanted them in the first place because they were sour. Like the fox, many of us decide that what we cannot have we didn’t really want in the first place, and so we reduce the pangs of disappointment. On the other hand, “sour grapes” is no more common than the opposite syndrome: “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” All too frequently we want something passionately only when we cannot have it.

These perverse desires—perverse because they are not formed on the basis of the merits of what we desire—have interesting properties. The attitude associated with “sour grapes” may be perverse, but, Elster observes, it can be useful to the extent that it reduces the pain of failing to get what we once wanted. Its opposite is simply self-defeating: what we have we do not want, what we want we cannot have. On the other hand, “sour grapes” may stop us trying to get the grapes when they are within reach, while the view that the “grass is greener” may spur us to effort and (if the trait is general) make for a sort of social progress. Still, the familiarity of such thinking raises an obvious question—does it matter?

It matters for many reasons. One is that it undermines a great deal of economics. Economics is, at its widest, the study of how people can most efficiently satisfy their desires. It is all about instrumental rationality. Economists usually assert and their critics usually complain that “economics takes desires as given,” that is, economists do not moralize about what people want, they only assess how efficiently people set about getting it. What links traditional economics and modern accounts of “rational choice” is the thought that rational behavior is entirely a matter of choosing the most efficient means to a given goal. Such attitudes as “sour grapes” and “greener grass” cast doubt on that starting point. If our desires are perverse, gratifying them may very well not increase our welfare.

Elster never exaggerates the importance of such desires, but it is worth observing how far their implications stretch. Advertising, for instance, is largely devoted to encouraging the feeling that what we don’t have is vastly more desirable than what we do have. You need not be a Marxist to think that there is something wrong with an economic system that relies as heavily as does our own on inducing perverse desires. If you are a Marxist, on the other hand, you will think “sour grapes” is important for a further reason. An inegalitarian society would seem to be vulnerable to the discontent of the poor and powerless; why do they not rise up and demand more food, better clothes, larger houses, and the boss’s job? A famous answer is that they are systematically taught that they wouldn’t enjoy them, or wouldn’t like the extra responsibility, or wouldn’t care for middle-class culture. They are disarmed before they have armed themselves, because their desires are shaped to suit “the system.” The system induces the “sour grapes” syndrome in the disadvantaged. Michel Foucault, as much as Karl Marx, argued that capitalism protects itself in just this way.

Elster is quite clear that this is not the way to explain what he labels “perverse preference formation.” He rejects any suggestion that societies or economic systems “act” in the way individuals do. Making Sense of Marx was deeply hostile to Marx’s “functionalism”—to the way Marx explained economic activity by claiming that it served the needs of capital. Sour Grapes and Nuts and Bolts are equally skeptical of such explanations. Any explanation of perverse preference formation must invoke plausible psychological mechanisms, not social functions.

Elster sets great store by the truism that a society is not something over and above its members. As Nuts and Bolts reiterates, what the social sciences explain is the doings of individuals and the consequences of those doings. Certainly many—perhaps most—of those consequences are unforeseen and unintended: Adam Smith was right to say it was an invisible hand that ensured that when we all compete in the marketplace we inadvertently maximize national output and minimize prices. We intend our actions, but we do not always intend their consequences. The model of social scientific virtue is economics, which explains collective or aggregate effects according to the interaction of individuals.

In using the economic model, however, many writers have been tempted to stand common sense on its head, or, more elegantly, to pursue “counterintuitive” hypotheses wherever they may lead. In The Economic Approach to Human Behavior3 the Chicago economist Gary Becker tried to explain all social life as a series of economic transactions. Becker’s tactics are, one might say, the reverse of Thorstein Veblen’s. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen claimed that people who thought they were behaving like rational economic men were really driven by the desire for reputation and glory that drove their barbarian forbears. Becker takes an institution like the family, which we think is sustained by love and altruistic emotions, and analyzes it as a series of bargains for sex, subsistence, and security.

Elster doesn’t flout common sense in that way—whatever the arguments for and against such flouting. He doesn’t suggest that the altruists who make sacrifices for their children and wives, or to help people badly off, are “really” out to gratify themselves. He thinks that the view that self-interested behavior is basic is true in only a restricted sense—namely, that altruism could not define itself as such, and would have nothing to work against, if people did not have some self-interested wishes. The attraction of economics is not its connection with self-interest, but its concern with rationality.

What makes rational action special? Many things, but the first is that rational behavior is interesting to analyze because rationality is essentially flexible. It is flexible because rational people calculate the best means to whatever ends they have in view, and those calculations are of great intellectual interest. To be rational, in Elster’s sense, is simply to try to bring about the best results you can. To do this means choosing the most efficient means to that end. Driving through Manhattan, I adjust my route to the prevailing traffic when I need to. A drug company tries to minimize the mileage its sales people travel in the course of visiting all its customers. Working out what that requires is often very complicated. Companies can now use computer programs to solve such puzzles and save a great deal of money. But what fascinates Elster—and other theorists in this tradition—is the paradoxical cases where rationality demands inflexibility.

  1. 1

    See, for instance, Robert Frank’s Passions Within Reason, reviewed in The New York Review, May 18, 1989.

  2. 2

    It was reviewed at length in these pages by Michael Walzer (November 21, 1985).

  3. 3

    University of Chicago Press, 1977.

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