Stranded in the Jungle--36

Rational Choice Theory

INSTRUMENTAL. Economists and political scientists inform us that human beings strive to maximize utility. They call their doctrine "rational choice theory." It works like this. Each one of us has a finite set of preferences. These preferences are like little pictures I carry around in my head. Or better, they are like the items I select from the "Preferences" (MacOS) or "Options" (Windows) menu in a computer program. Preferences are a matter of personal taste. They do not come from anywhere. They are simply given in advance, like my genes, or like the implicit order of God's creation. What's more, these preferences remain the same from day to day. They do not even change over the course of a lifetime. As a result, they can all be ranked in a fixed order. It's simple. Each preference is given a precise numerical value. Think of it as the amount of money I would agree to spend, in order to make each of them come true. For instance, I might be willing to make payments of $400 a month to buy a new SUV. In contrast, I only spent $100 on my wedding. I would gladly contribute $10 a month, if that would save the whales from extinction. But although I hate it when my upstairs neighbor plays the piano badly, at all hours of the day and night, I wouldn't deign to pay him more than $5 a month to secure his silence. This shows that I value the SUV four times as much as I do my wife, forty times as much as I do saving the whales, and eighty times as much as I do my neighbor's silence. Armed with such preferences, I venture into the marketplace. There I encounter my fellow Americans, who have all ranked their own preferences in a similar manner. The famous "invisible hand" takes care of the rest. In the evening, when we come back home from the market, each and every one of us is as happy as he or she can possibly be. For we have all gotten as much as we could for our money. Each of us has maximized his or her utility. Of course, rich people will tend to be happier than poor ones. This is because their preferences are stronger, as is proved by the greater sums of money they are willing and able to spend. In any case, the market has reached equilibrium. It is no longer possible to increase the world's total amount of happiness. Does this mean that we act rationally all the time, like Mister Spock? Rational choice theorists only assert that our actions unfold as if they had been rationally calculated. We need not be aware that this is what we are doing. The discipline of the marketplace, as Margaret Thatcher liked to call it, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The constraints of the price system force us to be free. They compel us to act rationally, in accordance with our preferences. The market does a far better job than the police, when it comes to making people behave consistently. Rational choice theorists say much the same thing about our emotions. They no longer regard the emotions as irrational forces that drive us astray. Rather, they argue, emotions have a well-defined function. They guide us, willy-nilly, towards rational behavior. They work, just like the market does, to maintain a state of maximal satisfaction. Human beings, like other biological organisms, have a fixed number of underlying drives. These drives refer to conditions that the organism tries to fulfill, within the limits of homeostatic equilibrium. Take hunger, for instance, or the need for social contact. Fulfillment of the conditions of these drives-like having a good meal in good company-leads to satisfaction. But either too little or too much stimulation of the drives-starvation on the one hand, or an ancient Roman banquet on the other-leads, instead, to dissatisfaction. Our emotions are the inner expressions of these states of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. I am angered by obnoxious dinner companions, or I feel disgusted after eating too much rich food. These emotions, in turn, impel behaviors that work to reestablish equilibrium. I punch out my obnoxious neighbors, or I barf up all the excess food, and once again I feel relaxed and whole. To see the world this way, as rational choice theorists do, is to life a life blissfully free from passion, remorse and doubt. Economists and political scientists tend to feel especially pleased with themselves. Nothing really bothers them any more. They even view starvation and disease with equanimity. For these, they say, are simply the logical outcomes of other peoples' revealed preferences. Those other people have freely chosen the lives they lead, even as we have chosen ours. If I were so foolish as to try and help you out, a rational choice theorist might say, both of us would end up being worse off. I would lose a certain amount of cash, and you would lose an equal amount of your human dignity. I'm doing you a favor by letting you starve. The least you can do in return is to have the courtesy to let me finish my dinner in peace.

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