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)

Jon Elster
Jon Elster; drawing by David Levine

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…

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