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: _____________________________________

Open Access Gary Becker papers, and a couple of thoughtful links on him

Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker died Saturday. For those of you who don’t know about his work, go here. For the rest of you, economist Tyler Cowen has compiled a great list of articles by Becker that you can read:

    1. Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory.”  Can the theorems of economics survive the assumption of irrational behavior? (hint: yes)
    2. Altruism, Egoism, and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology.”  The title says it all, from 1976.
    3. A Note on Restaurant Pricing and Other Examples of Social Influence on Price.”  Why don’t successful restaurants just raise the prices for Saturday night seatings?
    4. The Quantity and Quality of Life and the Evolution of World Inequality” (with Philipson and Soares).  The causes and importance of converging lifespans.
    5. Competition and Democracy.“  From 1958, but most people still ignore this basic point about why government very often does not improve on market outcomes.
    6. The Challenge of Immigration: A Radical Solution.”  Auction off the right to enter this country.

Cowen also linked to sociologist Kieran Healy’s fascinating take on Michel Foucault’s thoughts about Gary Becker’s work over at Crooked Timber (and here is a pdf of Becker on Foucault on Becker).

And economist Mario Rizzo shares some short thoughts about Becker’s work in relation to the Austrian School of Economics (Becker is associated with the Chicago School of Economics). Rizzo’s account of the early 1960s debate on rationality between Becker and Kirzner is worth a look.

Update: Here is Gary Becker’s 1992 Nobel Prize lecture (pdf)

People: neither blithering idiots nor towering geniuses

Or is it that they’re both?

As a young libertarian first exposed to economics (actually it was my third exposure where it took) I was struck with an exciting proposition: people don’t need the government to look after them because (we’ve assumed that) they’re rational! In that case, government can almost only ever do harm. Add in some public choice and Austrian insights and you’ve got a water tight defense of liberty.

But actually you don’t. Because as it turns out, people might actually be complete morons. I’ll bet if you marketed a brand of bottled water as having never been warm–cleaned with pre-chilled filters made in iceland, and never poured into room temperature bottles–it would sell. But if that’s the case, the world should be a scary place. People would be doing ridiculous things and electing ridiculous politicians to help them act even more absurdly.

I’m an economist and I still do plenty of irrational things. But it turns out that first taste of economics was econ of a particular variety: the study of what is rational. Not the study of how people rationally act. That’s not to say it’s worthless. David Friedman put it well in Hidden Order: if people are rational some times and act randomly other times, then we can still make useful predictions about their behavior. But I don’t think that economics is some sort of half-science that assumes away randomness in order to study some portion of people’s actions.

Mostly, I think the study of rationality lays a foundation, and offers a puzzle, to allow further study of ecological rationality. The world is orderly and roughly follows the predictions we make when we assume individuals are rational. And yet people seem far from rational. What gives?!

It turns out we have to pay attention to institutions. These often hidden rules of the game direct our actions and embed our learning in social rules. Those crazy (probably imaginary) sociologists might have been on to something when they said that individuals’ actions are shaped by social forces. It’s not that people don’t have autonomy, it’s that people don’t exist in a vacuum.

Yes they are.

What’s my point? Learning a little bit of economics goes a long way to making good arguments for liberty, but it doesn’t go far enough. We live in an a much more interesting world than the one we learn about in econ 101.