McCumber and “Rational Choice Philosophy” June 21, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Operations Research.
Tags: Alex Abella, G. W. F. Hegel, Hans Reichenbach, Howard Raiffa, John McCumber, John von Neumann, Kenneth Arrow, Margaret Thatcher, Oskar Morgenstern, R. Duncan Luce, S. M. Amadae, W. V. O. Quine
I often say that the first college-level history course I ever took was the history of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany with Peter Hayes at Northwestern University. However, on Monday I was reminded that my first history course there was really in the philosophy department: History of Philosophy, II: Medieval Philosophy* with John McCumber. McCumber, who it turns out studies the philosophy of the German tradition, had a piece in the New York Times’ The Stone series called “The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy” which wanders into what has come to be my favorite historical terrain.
In his piece, McCumber begins by citing Hegel to the effect that “history is idea-driven,” and then makes the common historical and critical move of connecting the rise of theories of rational decision with the present dominance of a market-oriented polity, authorized by a selfish ethics implicit to a purportedly neutral analytical framework. In another move that is itself common enough to have been brilliantly parodied by the Simpsons in 1994, McCumber identifies the RAND Corporation (est. 1946) as the key vector for the translation of intellectual work into the realm of political and social ideas “(aided in the crossing, to be sure, by the novels of another Rand—Ayn)”:
Functionaries at RAND quickly expanded the theory from a tool of social analysis into a set of universal doctrines that we may call ‘rational choice philosophy.’
McCumber distinguishes “rational choice theory,” which has served as an analytical tool in areas such as economics, political theory, and cognitive psychology, from “rational choice philosophy” — a term McCumber appears to coin, and the existence and contents of which are primarily evidenced by the philosophy’s malign effects on society:
Wars have been and are still being fought to bring such freedom to Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Grenadans, and now Libyans, with more nations surely to come.
At home, anti-regulation policies are crafted to appeal to the view that government must in no way interfere with Americans’ freedom of choice. Even religions compete in the marketplace of salvation, eager to be chosen by those who, understandably, prefer heaven to hell.
Today, institutions which help individuals [increase their wealth and power so as to pursue their preferences] (corporations, lobbyists) are flourishing; the others (public hospitals, schools) are basically left to rot. Business and law schools prosper; philosophy departments are threatened with closure.
The fateful crossing of the boundaries from the confined “theory” to politically pervasive “philosophy” is, as we have seen, attributed to RAND “functionaries”. Those sniveling bureaucrats, will they never learn?
Interestingly, there is no overwhelming reason to put RAND into this story at all. While extremely important as a home for academic and practical work in linear programming, dynamic programming, and certain kinds of game theory, theories of political choice were, by and large, developed in university departments (though often funded, for a time, by places like the Office of Naval Research), with RAND involved in this sphere mainly by sponsoring summer visitors and conferences.
RAND fits into McCumber’s narrative, because, as an important Air Force contractor, it is assumed to have had the political authority behind it necessary to entrench a polemic declaring ideas alternative to theirs as tantamount to “collectivism”. Note that McCumber calls RAND generically “hyperinfluential”. This institutional story makes it possible to endow an almost mystical social and political authority on highly academic discussions in a way that attributing the ideas to mere university departments apparently cannot.
Incidentally, for his history of RAND, McCumber cites the awful Soldiers of Reason (2008) by Alex Abella, and S. M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy (2003). McCumber seems to gather his account of RAND and its influence on rational choice theory mainly from Amadae’s chapter one, which I have found highly misleading in that it indiscriminately blends discussions of game theory, strategic theory, program budgeting, and systems analysis in ways that tend to portray RAND’s contract studies and its academic output as somehow lending political credence to each other. The rest of Amadae’s book is an uneven, but very useful introduction to various strands of post-1950 academic political thought. I do recommend it, albeit with a due dose of caution.
McCumber’s narrative sequence is odd as well, giving an almost instantaneous influence to theories of rational choice. For a little chronology, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior was published in 1944, but game theory had little significance in the social sciences until after R. Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa’s Games and Decisions, published in 1957. Although I don’t think it would be at all possible to speak of anything like a “rational choice philosophy” until after this date, McCumber has Hans Reichenbach exemplifying it in 1951 and W. V. O. Quine refuting it with underdetermination in 1953.
Kenneth Arrow’s book Social Choice and Individual Values appeared in 1951, based on his PhD thesis at Columbia. I suspect that Arrow (who, by the way, spent time and was partially funded by RAND in this period, but who was not a RAND employee) is an important unmentioned figure in McCumber’s piece, and that Arrow’s book is why he dates the birth of “rational choice theory” to that year.
(Arrow’s impossibility theorem, however, is certainly not a problem of optimized choices made by rational actors, since there are no personal calculations involved. “Rationality” is, however, invoked in a formal sense insofar as individuals are assumed to have preferences that can be ordered.)
Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” noted that it makes little sense to speak of “social value” in terms of anything other than the sum of the preferences of the individuals who comprise the society, but that it is impossible to speak coherently of the sum of these preferences since they contradict each other. Therefore, the only way to speak coherently of social value in these terms is by presuming to know or dictate what individuals’ values really are or should be.
I have to imagine that Margaret Thatcher took her famous “There is no such thing as society” quote directly from this line of thought. I reckon it is also where McCumber gets the bit about accusations of “collectivism” since “social value” was a crucial component to Marxist theory. For Amadae, in chapter two of her book, Arrow’s argument here is an intellectual arm of the Cold War, which McCumber turns into a “program of government propaganda.”
But I would urge one to view the impossibility theorem as more of an open-ended quandary for political philosophy. Arrow was opening up the question: on what basis can a government claim to act on behalf of the nation? I would argue that Arrow’s theorem made it necessary to clarify and make explicit what this basis was, and under what circumstances it remained valid. I would argue the intention was certainly not to imply that there was no basis. After all, Arrow’s own 1963 analysis of the health care industry is still cited by proponents of single-payer health insurance today. If a “rational choice philosophy” ever existed, it was surely a more politically ambiguous beast than McCumber makes it out to be.
The search for the intellectual bogeymen that foist the evils of the world upon a trusting public is a tempting one, not least, apparently, because it can be used to argue for the importance of doing things like studying German-language philosophers like Hegel. The danger, as ever, is that this search allows us to invent intellectual vectors like “rational choice philosophy” and to invent historical narratives to explain their political and social ascendancy, rather than to search continually for deeper historical understanding of the things we are talking about.
*Extraneous reminiscence: As a freshman, I chose McCumber’s course more-or-less arbitrarily, and was woefully unprepared to place anything I learned in any sort of historical or philosophical context, but I ended up liking it in the end. And it’s come in handy later on as I’ve had to figure out what my early modernist colleagues are up against in analyzing the historical emergence of post-Peripatetic natural philosophy from medieval thought. Of course, the only real specifics of that experience I remember are arguments that thinking about perfect islands proves God’s existence, and being hopeful that Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed would clear up some of the problems I was having with the material, which it did not. Ah, freshman year…