Mea Culpa: Israel and Palestine

So, I let myself be captured by Irfan’s cultured, bright, well-spoken, and fact-studded critique. He is right, on the main. My short essay is loose on many facts. I did not know what I did not know. And where it’s not completely wrong, it’s often sloppy. So, for example, I shouldn’t have said that Jews were not allowed on the mosque’s esplanade. I should have said (and the damned thing is that I knew it) that they were not allowed to pray there – but then, what if a Jew takes a walk on the esplanade and prays inside his head, and what if, unbeknownst to him, his lips move a little? As they say in French: “Irfan m’a mené en bateau.” At any rate, I will simply confess that nearly all my facts are wrong so I can recover my purpose, at last. Don’t worry, I won’t take much of your time. Here are a handful of real real facts and their obvious implications:

  • Palestinian Muslims (or a single one) assassinated two Israeli police officers a few weeks ago on the mosques esplanade or near it.
  • The assassin or assassins used a gun or guns.
  • Israeli authorities – that exercise de facto control over the area- responded by setting up metal detectors on entrances to the mosque’s esplanade.
  • Metal detectors are useful to alert to the presence of most firearms and of some bombs.
  • Palestinian Muslims protested this measure in several ways, including with riots.
  • The people whose safety could have been improved by the existence of the metal detectors were both Israeli security forces in the area and the great many Palestinian Muslims who constitute the bulk of the visitors to the same area.
  • Thus, Palestinian Muslims protested -including with rioting – security measures that were likely to benefit them most (in terms of numbers).*

That is collective irrationality.

I suppose that Irfan, or another subtle defender of irrationality, will argue that the installation of metal detectors at those sites is another step in Palestinians’ loss of sovereignty over the Holy Places, and thus the violent reaction. Sure thing! This defense implies that Palestinian Muslims have to be ready to be assassinated by other Palestinian Muslims in order to enforce a shred of Palestinian Muslim sovereignty over that small area.

That is insane.

*I ignore, of course, the idiotic view that Muslim terrorists could not possibly kill other Muslims at a sacred site of Islam. Muslims have been killing tens of thousands of Muslims, specifically, for the past twenty years. Some terrorists, who called themselves Muslims, chose to engage precisely in mass killing at Muslim religious sites such as mosques. And then, there are Jewish terrorists, and even the occasional dangerous illuminated Christian.

From the Comments: Israel and Palestine

Irfan and Jacques are going the rounds on Israel and Palestine (Canaan?). The dialogue, so far, is excellent. Jacques started things off and Dr Khawaja responded with this fine piece of pop-ethnography:

I just spent three weeks in Jerusalem, about a hundred yards from the scene of the action Jacques describes in this post, and spent hours observing the events Jacques describes (and many he doesn’t describe) at first hand. I described this post on Facebook as “factually challenged,” and promised to set it straight. So here I am. (A different version of this comment included about a dozen links substantiating my claims, but the post didn’t go through that way, so I’ll send the links separately.)

I had originally wanted to divide my post into two sections, first laying lay out the number of sheer inaccuracies Jacques has crammed into this post, and then identifying what I would call handwaving claims–large claims made without substantiation, or misleading claims made without clarification. It turns out to be impossible to do this, because Jacques has managed to combine inaccuracy with handwaving in a way that makes it impossible to disentangle the two. In any case, my claim is that when we add the sheer inaccuracies to the handwaving in his post, a rational reader would conclude that the post tells us nothing of value about recent events in Jerusalem.

1. Jacques tells us that there were violent riots in Jerusalem. Correct. He doesn’t mention that despite the outbreaks of violence, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Nor does he venture to tell us who started the violence, or under what circumstances. The word “riot” seems to imply a series of violent disturbances caused or initiated by rioters, but alas, one word can’t stand in for real-world observation of what actually happened. Nothing in Jacques’s account settles the crucial issue: who started the violence?

I have read almost all of the press coverage on recent events in Jerusalem, and saw the events themselves up close–at a few yards’ distance, for hours, in real time. I can’t easily summarize what I saw. There were at least four different demonstrations taking place simultaneously, within a few “blocks” of each other, and different things happened at different places at different times. On some occasions, I saw Israeli police officers either initiating or provoking violence. In other cases, Palestinians did so. There are also questions worth asking about what counts as an initiation of force under these circumstances. Typically, pointing a gun at someone without cause is regarded as a form of assault. But Israeli police officers and soldiers do this all the time. An Israeli border police officer played chicken with me with her M-16 for no reason other than her amusement. If I’d been armed and shot her, would my shooting have been an initiation or a retaliation? Nothing in Jacques’s account settles or even deals with this, but one can’t understand events in Jerusalem without settling issues like this.

Suffice it to say that the press coverage of relevant events, especially the American press coverage, was either non-existent or extremely defective. It is very easy to claim that what took place in Jerusalem consisted of riots if all you do is wait for violence to break out, film it, and then declare that “the event” you just covered was a “riot.” It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that that’s what really happened. And I can assert, categorically, that it wasn’t. In short, there is a lot more to the story than “riots.” For a starters, there were all those events that took place when no one was rioting.

(I’ve discussed some of the micro-level issues involved here on Facebook, some on public and some on private settings.)

2. Jacques tells us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control. He doesn’t mention that “Jerusalem” is a moving and expanding target that lacks an eastern boundary, as does the “Israeli control” he mentions. He also neglects to mention that the phrase “under Israeli control” is an equivocal claim: Shuafat refugee camp is technically within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, but it is run by the UNRWA; it is not de facto governed by the Jerusalem Municipality or by Israel. Something similar is true of the “Haram Sharif” complex that is the subject of Jacques’ post: it is technically within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality, but (as Jacques himself admits) it is managed or administered by the waqf under the auspices of the Jordanian government. Oddly, having told us that “all of Jerusalem” is under Israeli control, and then noting himself that Haram Sharif (in Jerusalem) is administered by Jordan, Jacques fails to draw the obvious inference: sovereignty over Jerusalem is contested, not settled. Israel claims sovereignty over “it,” as do the Palestinians, but claiming sovereignty and having sovereignty are two different things. (Many people have asserted sovereignty over Texas, but it doesn’t follow that their say-so resolves the issue.) I put the word “it” in scare quotes because in calling “it” the “Temple Mount,” Jacques manages to confuse a further set of issues that I’ll discuss below (in [4]).

3. Jacques: “In addition, most Palestinians from the adjacent West Bank are allowed to visit on a controlled basis, for religious purposes only.”

Two problems here. First, does Jacques mean to say that most Palestinians are in fact allowed into Jerusalem? This would imply that 51% or more of West Bank Palestinians are permitted into Jerusalem. I’d like to see a source for that claim. There are roughly 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Jacques’s “most Palestinians” claim implies that something like 1.25 million West Bank Palestinians have entry permits for Jerusalem, which strikes me as implausible in the extreme. It’s unclear how many permits are in fact given, but the usual figure is in the thousands. Not a representative sample, but: I know a few dozen Palestinian West Bankers; only one of them has an entry permit for Jerusalem. The rest are consigned to remain indefinitely in the West Bank.

In any case, permits are not given “for religious purposes only.” Permits are given for entry into Jerusalem/Israel, full stop. They’re checked at checkpoints into Jerusalem, but not thereafter, and what is checked is simply whether you have a permit or not, and whether you’re carrying contraband or not (unless a given soldier decides to initiate his own “investigation,” which sometimes happens). Once past the checkpoint, there is no mechanism in place to determine whether someone entering Jerusalem is doing so to pray at Al Aqsa or to score chicks on the beaches of Jaffa (or both). Further, permits are given for a variety of reasons, including medical care, family unification, and work. But they are given far more stingily than Jacques’s description would imply.

I raise both points (one favorable to the Palestinians, the other to the Israelis) to raise questions about the sources of Jacques’ information on the subject. His description of facts on the ground is unrecognizable to anyone who’s actually had to deal with those facts, as I have.

4. Jacques: “At the center of the preoccupations of the three monotheistic religions is a place called the Temple Mount.”

This paragraph of Jacques’ repeats the conventional wisdom on the subject, at least in the United States. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom reflects total ignorance of even basic facts of geography, which is hard to convey to those who haven’t been to the place in question.

Let’s start from scratch. The contested location is a big rectangle located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The western end of the rectangle contains what Jews call the Western Wall and its plaza. The eastern part of the rectangle contains a large complex housing the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa mosque, a few auxiliary religious facilities, and a large plaza connecting them. Parts of the rectangle are declared off-limits to civilians by the Israeli authorities.

Jews refer to the *whole* rectangle, including the Muslim shrines, as the “Temple Mount” and claim it (all of it) for their own. Particularly hard core Zionists want to expropriate the Muslims altogether, claim the whole site for their own, destroy the Muslim shrines on it, build a temple on their ruins, and exclude Muslims from entering. Such people have grown increasingly powerful over the years.

Muslims refer to the *eastern part* of the rectangle as “Haram Sharif,” or the Noble Sanctuary, and claim it, in its entirety, for Islam. Hard core Muslims want to exclude Jews from this area altogether.

It is worth noting, however, that not even hard core fundamentalist Muslims wish to expropriate Jews of the Western Wall, much less build a mosque there, despite the fact that the Western Wall Plaza was built on the ruins of the so-called Mughrabi neighborhood–an Arab neighborhood expropriated and destroyed after Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967.

It is also worth noting that though Israel divides the Old City into quarters, including the Jewish and Muslim Quarters, it permits Jewish settlement of the Muslim Quarter, but not the reverse. The “Jewish Quarter” is conveniently defined to include the Western Wall–though its plaza was built on a Muslim neighborhood, and you have to pass through Muslim neighborhoods to reach it–but no mosque within the Jewish Quarter is permitted to operate at all. Nor has “the Muslim Quarter” been re-defined to include the mosques that happen to lie in the “Jewish Quarter.”Indeed, a passerby would have no idea that these mosques are in fact mosques at all: they’re shut down and deliberately being left to fall into decay. The same is true of mosques in Jerusalem but in neighborhoods where Muslim entry would be deemed undesirable, e.g., the mosque of Mary in Ein Kerem.

Finally, Jacques’s claim that Jews are forbidden to enter Haram Sharif, whether on rabbinical or secular grounds, is laughably preposterous: they do it all the time, and are encouraged to. Indeed, the Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim advertises tours that it conducts into Haram Sharif.

Of all of the claims Jacques makes in this post, this last one suggests (with all due respect) that he has no idea what he’s talking about. The whole controversy over the “Temple Mount” arises precisely because Jews ARE allowed into the mosque complex (and take advantage of that right), and Muslims suspect their intentions in doing so. Contrary to what one reads in the American press, these suspicions have a credible basis. Muslims suspect Jewish intentions in Jerusalem because of the example of Jewish settlement activity in Hebron, where apparently innocuous Jewish entry into a religious shrine led, gradually, to the wholesale expropriation and depopulation of the Palestinian neighborhoods of the Old City. Today, Hebron is (for Palestinians) partly an open-air prison and partly a ghost town. The case of Hebron H2 zone has been amply documented. Jacques follows American convention in ignoring this documentation, and proceeding to talk about Jerusalem as though the two things had nothing to do with each other. Jacques also wonders out loud why Muslims would take issue with what he regards as ordinary security measures.

Even setting aside what “ordinary security measures” have done in Hebron (or Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Silwan, or Issawiya), he assumes that the measures would be deployed in good faith. No one who has actually dealt with Israeli police officers or soldiers would believe this. It may not occur to Jacques, but occurs to them, that security measures can be abused so as to treat the people covered by them as playthings. Jacques’s post shows literally zero awareness of a fact known to just about anyone who has dealt with Israeli security: most border police officers and soldiers are bored, immature, and heavily armed but lightly supervised children between the ages of 18-28 who will do just about anything to relieve their boredom–up to and including murder, battery, and torture. The Israelis may talk up a propaganda storm about their security needs, but once one sees what these “needs” look like on the ground, one’s sympathy for them begins to evaporate.

Further, Muslims and Jews do not “pray within a stone’s throw of each other,” whether literally or metaphorically. Though adjacent to the mosque complex, the Western Wall is separated from it by huge stone walls. Entry into the Western Wall plaza is entirely separate from entry into the mosque complex. Informally (the place is heavily policed, and the police often make their own rules), Arabs are discouraged from entering the plaza, and seldom do. Muslims and Jews only come into contact when Jews enter the mosque area, or when Jews walk (or march) through Muslim neighborhoods en route to the Kotel. I have never seen or even heard of a case in which Muslims entered the Western Wall plaza en masse in the way that Jews enter Haram Sharif. Indeed, doing so would be almost physically impossible. (Put it this way: Muslims would have to be very, very determined to do it.)

Contrary to Jacques’s assertion, Christians do visit both the Western Wall Plaza and the mosques. That they visit the Western Wall should be obvious. If you want a pleasant confirmation of Christians visiting the mosques, I’d suggest searching “Visit Al Aqsa Mosque with Me!” on You Tube. You’ll be taken on a delightful tour of the area with a perky Christian Palestinian woman named Maha who can also teach you how to make hummus or say “Merry Christmas” in Arabic. (Her Old City tour also goes to the Western Wall.)

I wonder whether Jacques has gotten his information from the Wikipedia entry on “Temple Mount Entry Restrictions.” Much of what he says dutifully parrots what is said there. That was a mistake, to put it mildly. Wikipedia is often useful, but not here.

5. Jacques mentions the shooting of July 14, and then mentions Israel’s security measures, wondering why they should be thought so controversial. I have a challenge for him. The shooting of July 14 took place outside of the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa complex, not within it. The attackers came from a neighborhood of Um al Fahm, a city about an hour or so to the north of Jerusalem. As should be self-evident, in order to bring weapons near the Temple Mount complex (which is in the Old City), these attackers had to bring those weapons into the Old City itself. The Old City is a walled structure that can only be entered by a series of gates (seven of them). The gates are easily identifiable, easily guarded, and it’s easily possible to put metal detectors in front of each of them.

If security were the paramount consideration Jacques takes it to be, why didn’t the Israeli authorities install the metal detectors at each of the gates of the Old City? Doing so would have prevented the July 14 attack, and would prevent any similar attack. But installing them in front of Al Aqsa would not have prevented the attackers from bringing weapons into the Old City and shooting someone outside of Al Aqsa, correct? Which is exactly what they did. Why then install security measures in front of Al Aqsa rather than at the entrance to the Old City itself? A common sense question for a person who claims to possess it.

6. While I’m posing questions about “common sense” security measures, here is another. After the July 14 shooting, and in advance of any rioting, the Israeli authorities shut down whole neighborhoods of East Jerusalem–something they do as a matter of course in Jerusalemite neighborhoods like Issawiya, and as a matter of course in the West Bank. I got to see these closures in a tediously microscopic way, and could probably write a couple of thousand words on them alone. But just to make things clear: large swatches of Jerusalem as well as the West Bank are under a semi-permanent state of lockdown, a lockdown imposed by the Israelis on its Palestinian population.

Now, remarkable as this information may be, shootings take place in the United States just as they do in Israel. Indeed, on average, a shooting takes place just about every other day in my county, often just a mile or two from where I live. Yet, no one regards it as legitimate to close down whole neighborhoods over any given shooting, or to institute curfews over them–and to do so simply on the basis of the ethnicity of the presumed shooter. To put the matter as simply as I can: a black person may well shoot and kill someone in a nearby neighborhood in north Jersey, but that doesn’t imply that every black neighborhood in the vicinity of the shooting will be locked down and put under curfew as a result. But that is what routinely happens in Arab Jerusalem, and what Jacques appears to be defending as a matter of “common sense.”

Is it, really? If so, why not try it right here in the States? If we did, would it be any surprise that the people locked down might eventually fight back? Would they be wrong to? The undiscussed issue here is what the police can permissibly do, on ethnic grounds, in the name of collective punishment of what it regards as an unruly population. Suffice it to say that it’s not obvious that collective punishment is a legitimate mode of law enforcement.

Jacques refers to Israel as a “garrison state,” treating its Jewish population as the besieged. The claim is utterly preposterous. Israeli Jews not only aren’t besieged in Israel, but generally don’t feel besieged. Spend some time in the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem and ask yourself whether the people around you are operating with a siege mentality. What Jacques seems not to have grasped is that it is not Israeli Jews who are garrisoned by Israel, but its Palestinian Arab population.

A “garrison” is a body of troops stationed to defend a piece of territory. Typically, a garrison defends an “inside” against outsiders. But in this case, the garrison consists of Israeli troops treating insiders as though they were outsiders–and then complaining about the result. Well, that’s the price of creating a sectarian state in a place where a significant part of the population doesn’t belong to your sect. The more I visit Israel, the more I see of Israel; the more I see of it, the less sympathy I have for Israelis and their supporters. And, I might add, the less patience I have for Americans who defend Israel from afar without knowing what things look like on the ground.


the views he expresses on Jerusalem are well within the boundaries of conventional, mainstream American opinion, which is why I took the time to respond to them. Most American defenders of Israel believe most of the things Jacques asserts, and many would go much farther than he has. American discourse on Israel is just wildly skewed, and French as he may be, Jacques’ views are just an instance of that all-American phenomenon.

More here, including links.

In general I am inclined to side, if I must, with Irfan’s argument, but Jacques, as usual, presents a case, in the threads, that can not so easily be dismissed or debunked:

The fact that, in this case, two Palestinians (with Israeli citizenship) tried to assassinate members of Israeli forces counts for nothing, explains nothing [in Irfan’s argument]. Palestinians live under military occupation, have for the longest time. I am sure it’s really unpleasant. It should stop. Stopping it, of course, requires negotiations between rational, motivated people.

Here’s a bunch of stuff at NOL on rationality (or rather, irrationality). And here is Barry’s long, somewhat famous, essay on Israel, Palestine, and rational debate.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.


So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.

*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.

Rational ignorance and institutions

I’m grading a question I gave to my class on rational ignorance so I’ve been restating myself repeatedly… and in doing so refining my view on rational ignorance.

Here’s the basic story: an election is forthcoming and we need to decide how we will vote. One possibility is that we follow heuristics (such as “I’m going to vote for the Democrats”). Another is that we delve through all the available information and make a calculated decision based on what we expect will be the outcomes of each candidate’s proposed policies (or what we think their policies actually will be). In a perfect world the median voter would be making a decision on the second basis. But each voter faces an opportunity cost of being more informed. And because a tie is highly unlikely I can cast a ballot I might otherwise regret but I won’t have to worry that it will actually change the outcome of the election.

The outcome is that people vote stupidly. But if that were really the problem it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Yes, people are wasting their votes. But really, we’re not facing a situation where “the truth” is on the ballot. The real problem is that the terms of political competition aren’t what we want them to be. This is still a Prisoners’ Dilemma, but the outcome isn’t “we all accidentally vote for the jackass.” The outcome is “the competition is inescapably between jackasses.”

In a world where rational ignorance were a problem because of the ignorance part political races would still be about a reasoned debate about how to improve the world. But that isn’t what politics is (and it probably never was). Instead it’s about marketing. It’s about grabbing the scarce attention of voters that has little if anything to do with information or anything you can be ignorant about.

In other words, rational ignorance is not an epistemic problem, it’s an institutional problem. It does not simply change the intelligence of the outcome of a vote, it reduces the role of intelligence and rationality in elections. It changes the rules of the game so that a politician’s efforts towards being “right” have little bearing on their success. What really matters is garnering the irrational support of voters.

Radiations: Report is in!

The report of a serious scientific study aimed at detecting radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident on the California coast is in. The study examined kelp (a kind of giant seaweed) because its tissues easily absorb and retain radiations.

The main finding is: _____________________________________