Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rationality and Politics

Ron Paul has garnered a lot of attention as of late, both in the mass media and even right here at our own little contribution to the so-called blogosphere. We on the left like to talk about him because, hey, he's against the war, and the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Those on the political right like to tout him because he personifies all those libertarian principles that Republicans supposedly touted before the embarrassingly irresponsible and bloated Bush administration. Libertarianism is an interesting identity; it's found on both the political right and the political left, but is rarely considered as part of the "middle ground". Nobody ever really describes the mythical "median voter" as a libertarian. And really, what is a libertarian, anyway? Lots of people like certain libertarian values, and I am sure that, in many ways, a lot of those who post here at WTWC can identify our own libertarian tendencies. I don't want the government telling me what society and culture should look like, I don't want them telling me and mine what is morally or ethically correct. Many on the right identify as economic libertarians; it's okay to keep the gays from marrying, but by God, don't tell me how to spend my money.

Nearly everyone in American politics adheres to the same general political philosophy - liberalism - and our political differences often stem from different interpretations of what it means to be a 'liberal' society. This was, for a long time, a uniquely American political culture. Party systems in other countries prior to the spread of neo-liberalism across the Atlantic in the 1980s had party systems which represented very real ideological differences. Conservatives were classically so, Socialists were actual socialists, and not just welfare liberals being slandered, and Liberal parties were philosophically liberals - business class, free-marketeers.

One assumption that liberals must make is that human beings are rational. Individual rationality is the foundation on which liberalism is built. Indeed, without the assumption that individuals are capable of determining their what is in their own best interest, liberalism would be indistinguishable from its ideological competitors. Libertarianism, like neo-liberalism and welfare-liberalism, is simply one interpretation of human rationality.

When Libertarians approach me on the street during the political campaign season, I usually reply with a simple "No thanks, I like my schools and roads toll free." Snarky, sure, but fundamentally true. Does this mean that I do not believe in human rationality? Of course not. But there are significant differences between recognizing market failures and denying human rationality.

On June 19th, our very own SocraticGadfly posted his thoughts on rationality and Adam Smith, and in May Kevin Drum over at Political Animal posted his response to a Chris Hayes critique of voter rationality. There are a couple of tacks one could take regarding rationality, and I think one of the best known in the policy praxis literature is that of Deborah Stone, particularly from her book Policy Paradox.

While there are some basic factual discrepancies on which I disagree with my colleague Gadfly, I understand his fundamental point, which is that people are not fundamentally rational actors. This is not to say that humans are essentially irrational, or even illogical, but rather, that emotions factor heavily into our decisions making. Deborah Stone refers to this as part of her "polity model" of individual actions. It states, essentially, that the market and the polis are separate spheres of human interaction, and are therefore dictated by different natural laws. Markets adhere to the so-called Laws of Matter, while the polis is dictated by the Laws of Passion. This is because the goals of the market and the goals of the polis are fundamentally different. Market interactions are about maximizing individual wealth, and in the polis individual interactions are geared toward the collective well-being. Hayes writes of a UCSD study in which:

tokens were distributed among experimental subjects, with a few getting a
concentrated chunk of the wealth and a majority getting little. They offered the
“poor” subjects the opportunity to pay a price to take money away from the rich.
The catch was that rather than being redistributed, the money would simply
disappear. Economic orthodoxy predicts that few would snap at the chance, since
they’d be paying for something that would confer no direct benefit. But they
did. In spades.

Though only one data point, it suggests that people have a profound
sense of economic fairness, that we are all, more or less, intuitive socialists.
As far back as Edmund Burke, conservatives have suspected as much and feared
democracy for that very reason. Read James Madison in the Federalist Papers and
it’s clear that many of the Constitution’s undemocratic elements were designed
to prevent the expropriation of wealth from an outnumbered elite.

Pretty interesting stuff, to be sure, but I don't think that this necessarily indicates that people are irrational, or that socialist tendencies are irrational (as Hayes implies).

Rationality in the political science literature comes in many shapes and fits within multiple perspectives within the discipline – sometimes contradictorily. Generally speaking, the rationality of actors refers to an actor’s ability to: 1) define goals and preferences, 2) imagine alternative means for achieving such goals, 3) evaluate the consequences of each course of action, and 4) choose an alternative which best facilitates the accomplishment of such goals or the fulfillment of such preferences (Stone, 233). Working within the context of liberalism – which is usually the case within the world of American politics – actor rationality is often assumed. Liberalism as an ideology hinges on the idea that individuals are best able to assess what is best for one’s self, and it is this assumption which differentiates liberalism from the Burkean vein of conservative thought. However, many have claimed that accepting actor rationality has its limitations as an explanatory element when studying public policy. First, while rationality within a liberal context can be assumed, perfect information cannot. Second, when considering public policy, the bounds of what constitutes rationality are expanded; civic mindedness changes the equation as decisions affect not just an individual, but rather, all (or at least most) individuals within a community. Third, that which is perceived as best for individuals and communities when considering policy moves beyond the finite material exchanges of the market and includes human resources which are affected by the laws of passion.

That's a lot of text, but I hope the fundamental conflict has been characterized appropriately.

The processes of rational decision making in the polis are much like those in the market when the Stone market-polis comparison is simplified. Actors, when considering alternatives, assess four general variables: The resources that an actor brings to a situation; the valuation actors assign to the state of the world and to actions; the ways actors acquire, process, retain, and use knowledge contingencies and information; and the processes actors use for the selection of particular courses of action. The “passionate” preferences which actors hold in the polis can be rationally considered within this decision making framework. When one considers, say, redistributive economic policy, passionate preferences might include concerns over social justice and substantive equality, or more neo-liberal conceptions of free markets and property rights. These preferences may or may not be grounded in self-interested perspectives, but despite the motivations, rational decision making processes are utilized when developing and advocating either position. Advocates must consider the burden of welfare programs on the public coffers, and their own tax contributions to such programs. They make normative judgments about social justice and equality in the community, and they draw upon narratives in the popular media about down-and-out factory workers and so-called welfare queens. Finally, voters and advocates must pick policy options which best contribute to what they perceive to be the best means for achieving their preferences. While these preferences may be considered passionate, and while they affect the well being of the community and not just an individual, those passionate preferences are variables which are considered as part of the cost-benefit analysis each person must make.

These preference rankings – passionate or otherwise – are shaped, much like in the market place, by perceptions of value. Rational actors rank preferences by subjective terms, and not by some hypothetical objective measure. Yet, these rankings are still rational because they have, in one way or another, utility. Hayes implies that socialistic tendencies are irrational; I would disagree. Socialistic tendencies are very rational, particularly when it comes to equal access to services and human dignity, like waters, electricity, and health care. Social safety nets are rational because everyone can conceive of themselves needing such programs at sometimes in their lives. And if not them personally, then someone they love. In reference to John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" thought experiment, we can see why rational societies develop selfless social programs from very self-interested motivations (which is not to say selfish).

But what about voting? That's the big counterpoint to the rationality argument, and it's hard to argue. Voting is terribly irrational. The chances that an individual's vote will have any effect on any significant election are infinitesimal. A rational individual can safely assume that other irrational individuals will go out to vote, and the rational individual will better spend his time (which is a cost), by either working harder, or enjoying the fruits of his/her labor. Were the rational individual serious about affecting an electoral outcome, s/he would be more effective by donating large sums of money, convincing others to do so, or by convincing others to vote. Yet, we find that people vote in large numbers - indeed, even many rational choice theorists vote. So what does that say about human rationality? Well, who knows. Had I a definite answer I would be publishing this not at WTWC, but rather in the American Political Science Review. However, there does seem to be something to the idea that, due to social engineering and peer pressure, we do derive some utility from voting, as it satisfies a certain need that we have which stems from social conditioning. Also, voting allows us to avoid the negative social stigma of non-voters in a democracy. Many places which enjoy incredibly high voter turnout have mandatory voting laws, but these are often unenforced, and the jury is still out as to whether or not these laws are effective.

I think that many peoples' concepts of rationality are too narrow. However, not everything is rational, and to expand the definition of rationality to such an extreme is not helpful as it limits the explanatory power of the model. SocraticGadfly writes:

... modern heterodox economics, especially when it pairs up with the latest
research from neuroscience and cognitive science, recognizes just how strong
emotional drives are for home [sic] economicus, meaning we’re a lot less rational in
much of our economic decision-making than libertarians believe, or would have
the rest of us believe.

This latest research is not, I believe, counter to rationality. Emotional variables, I think, fall safely within the bounds of rational considerations.