Monday, November 15, 2010

The Myth of the Rational Man

Economics always blew my mind. Not because it’s difficult or complex or particularly deep, but because I didn’t know they taught religion in schools these days.

The central myth behind most of the modern schools of economics is the concept of “rational actors.” Preached about by Priests of Logic like Gary Becker, this theory makes one of the most grossly ridiculous claims I can imagine: namely, that human beings act logically.

Look, folks, I could bore you with pages of serious examples, but all I need to do is point out that millions of people watch a channel called “MTV,” which stands for “Music Television,” yet it never plays music. Illogical people watching an illogical channel… millions of times every day.

Okay, I don’t think I convinced you. How about this: pogs. Yes, pogs. Remember those circular pieces of cardboard with a picture on them that kids paid good money for in the 90’s? What about “The Macarena?” How did a gay, Latin dance craze catch on in nation of xenophobic fag bashers? There is also no accounting for the likes of Lady Gaga.

When I look around at humanity, I see a lot of things… just not logic. Sure, we can use logic, just as we can be good to each other. We know 1+1=2, but it’s another thing entirely to say that human beings act rationally.

What’s particularly odd about all of this is that I doubt any of these logic cultists can explain to me what a logical decision actually is. It would be ridiculous to say that people act in their own best interests, or that people make decisions which benefit their family or society. Of course some “do,” though you’ll find a lot less thought goes into most decisions made by the average person than any of these ivory tower eggheads put into the analysis.

Man is a rationalizing animal, not a rational one. We do as we please, and most of the thought occurs when we are called to account for our deeds. Sure, sometimes we stress about a particular choice for a great deal of time, weighing the pros and cons, consulting friends and advisors, maybe even turning to religion’s ethics or rituals in pursuit of the answer. But are you going to all this trouble when you pick which pasta you buy at the supermarket?

These are miniscule choices to us, minor forks in the road which compose the very backbone of entire schools of thought. Strangely, these rationalist advocates also hold firm to a seemingly paradoxical view: liberty.

I believe in liberty. I lived in Philadelphia too long not to. It had nothing to do with dusty old buildings where crusty old men framed our nation; rather, I believe in liberty because of the people living in Philly today. The wandering drunk who seemed to age a decade over the course of just a few years of living on the street. Crackheads sparking up in broad daylight as school kids walked past. The men chased by police into the backyard of a friend of my wife’s on two separate occasions.

People will do as they please. Even with laws telling them not to, people will largely do what they want. For those making the wrong choices, even tougher choices await them, and if it were up to these confused rationalist-libertarians, no one would get any help. You should sink or swim based on your own rational choices, I guess.

Try asking these rationalists about people who are out of options. What is someone with no rational choices to do? “Well, they shouldn’t have…” is how they’ll usually start. These pro-liberty individuals who believe logic dictates human behavior suddenly don’t care too much for liberty, they care about you doing the “rational” (i.e. “right”) thing… which is undoubtedly what they’re doing. What's worse, their post facto chiding is worthless to those without a time machine.

I’ve noticed another trend among these believers in the faith of liberty and logic… they’re almost all Caucasion men from middle or upper class families.

Well, that was your mistake there, ma’am: you should have been born a white guy. Then, when you make the exact same decisions you made as a minority or woman, you can absolve yourself of any responsibility or punishment. While black men are arrested at record rates for drug charges, white men are doing drugs more often with fewer arrests. While women are being told to keep their child, the men who impregnated them live freely.

This is the privileged liberty of those who tout rationalism. The lucky few leading charmed lives, who convince themselves (i.e. rationalize) that they deserve what they have because of all the intelligent and rational choices they made. I don’t know about you… but it doesn’t seem logical to me. What more damning evidence for the folly of this philosophical faith is there?

Besides, if the world is full of rational actors, where was I during rehearsal?

1 comment:

  1. The "rationality" described by rational choice theory is different from the colloquial and most philosophical uses of the word. For most people, "rationality" means "sane," "in a thoughtful clear-headed manner," or knowing and doing what's healthy in the long term. Rational choice theory uses a specific and narrower definition of "rationality" simply to mean that an individual acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes personal advantage. For example, this may involve kissing someone, cheating on a test, using cocaine, or murdering someone. In rational choice theory, all decisions, crazy or sane, are postulated as mimicking such a "rational" process.

    -Source: Rational Choice Theory

    Also, you might find Behavioral Economics interesting. ;)


    A Minority, Lower Class, (soon to be) Economist.


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