jump to navigation

McCumber and “Rational Choice Philosophy” June 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Operations Research.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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…



1. Thony C. - June 21, 2011

…and being hopeful that Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed would clear up some of the problems I was having with the material…

Oh Boy, were you in for a let down!

Will Thomas - June 21, 2011

But it was right there in the title! I was “perplexed” and I needed a “guide” — I saw Maimonides coming up on the syllabus, and thought this was just the thing.

I think every undergraduate not working from a textbook in whatever subject needs to hear very explicitly: this was not written for you!

2. Mike Thicke - June 21, 2011

Thanks for tis Will. Are there any books you would recommend on the history of RAND / game theory in society?

Will Thomas - June 21, 2011

Hi Mike. When it comes to RAND and game theory, you really have to pick your way through. Way back in the 1960s, Bruce L. R. Smith wrote a book on RAND that is still useful, but it is really an institutional history and has very little intellectual analysis. Martin Collins’s 2002 book Cold War Laboratory is quite good on the foundation of RAND and on its first systems analysis project (Collins is the first to really recognize the importance of Edward Bowles). Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s book on Herman Kahn (2005) is also very good on RAND culture. David Jardini’s 1996? dissertation “Out of the Blue Yonder” is an important resource for anyone writing on the topic. Jardini was, I think, David Hounshell’s student, and Hounshell published an article somewhere (I could look it up) based on their work. Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon (1983) did some crucial journalistic groundwork that all later literature relies on.

However! Kaplan’s book (as you can tell from the title) is really the ur-synthesis of prior RAND-as-bogeyman sentiment. I don’t know of any work that follows it, which, whatever its virtues, doesn’t grab hold of the methodology-as-authority angle, and use it to explain all RAND projects [edit: and thus subsequent policy]. However, see this 1987 article I discovered the other day in the online archives of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which argues against exactly this view as far as nuclear strategy is concerned. (see especially its footnote 1)

For a concerted attempt to move beyond all that, I can heartily recommend my own 2007 dissertation (“A Veteran Science” — it seemed like a good title at the time), which in the relevant chapters introduces some new intellectual contexts to explain why RAND pursued the projects it did in the ways that it did. Busily chopping away at the book version….

On some of the theory, Paul Erickson’s 2006 dissertation on game theory is very useful. I haven’t read this book yet, alas. Judy Klein’s work, which will one day appear as a book called Protocols of War is crucial on some of the non-game theory mathematics. Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams has some superb work, but also follows the line that McCumber more-or-less follows here. Notably, Mirowski has since turned to the history of neo-liberalism, and can tell you all about how Austrian theory differs from the efficient markets hypothesis, among other things, which is in fact the kind of distinction that needs to be made for the history to make sense.

3. Juan - June 21, 2011

This sort of misunderstanding seems to be popular; as you suggest it fulfils a need for theodicy. Remember that Curtis guy I recommended you, Will? He’s unfortunately very prone to this kind of simplification, and makes a very similar argument to McCumber in “the Trap”. His latest series made the same mistakes, bringing in Ayn Rand and the “selfish gene” theory to explain our current maladies. Maybe this is the STS influence at work; bored of detailing the hustle and bustle of politics, Curtis et al feel the need to tackle “science” in order to demonstrate that power doesn’t just work through musty old civil servants…it works through musty old engineers at the Rand institute! Things that may seem surprising to the layman actually cover well trodden ground, and the danger is that these straw men will prevent you from seeing who’s actually responsible for what in historical events.

Will Thomas - June 22, 2011

Exactly. One of the things I am trying very hard to get across is the sheer prevalence of different versions of this narrative. The McCumber and Curtis view is a left-wing version, but some intellectuals on the right use it, too, such as American columnists George Will and David Brooks whenever they assume the left is possessed of a sort of technocratic, expert-driven problem-solving mentality.

My feeling is that STS is a consumer rather than a producer of this narrative. With my posts on “post-Marxist” history, I was beginning to get at the crucial influence of mid-century thinking about “ideology”, including but by no means limited to the ideology of science, as an explanation of bad politics and bad institutions. SSK apparently intended to escape from this sort of externalism, but (as I argued in my post on cultural history of knowledge vs. post-Marxist social history of science) what happened was that “cultures of trust” more or less just replaced ideology in what ended up being very similar sorts of narratives.

I really want to delve deeper into this ideology issue. I suspect it just boils down to a bunch of people citing Mannheim, but there could be some neat surprises along the way.

4. Jeff - June 23, 2011

Nice post. You are right to question the history to some extent. But the question becomes broader, because McCumber begins with individualism and wants to situate the whole “rational choice theory” in a philosophical movement. For this, he should have gone back to Hobbes. I’ve written a whole analysis of McCumber’s article on my blog (http://www.nicholasmusings.com/Philosophical%20Musings/files/8414c5f758a871d00ab6776077f9adc6-152.html)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s