Skip to main content

Why "Rational Self-Interest" Bugs Me

The phrase "rational self-interest" chafes my strap. I don't think it's entirely worthless--I do think an assumption of amoral self-interest, broadly defined, can be a highly useful first approximation, which is why economists are so excited about the concept. Profit-maximizers are a lot easier jam into a mathematical model than irrational actual people. But it is often taken too far. Here are three complaints:

People aren't terribly rational. I'm willing to concede that most people have a strong tendency toward self-interest, especially those in a position of authority, but behavioral economics is full of irrational tendencies people display that have been documented extremely well, even when measured in terms of self-interest. People take shortcuts and procrastinate; our reasoning systems are somewhat ad-hoc and don't always work perfectly.

"Rational" is a normative term, and I don't like how it's attached to "self-interest." This is kind of a quibble, but it's irritating when economists try to sneak normative, valorizing ideas into their ostensibly neutral definitions. It sneakily implies that selfish people are the ones that are really thinking clearly. It's lazy at best, psychotic at worst, and behind a lot of the asshole behavior that economists too often display.

Finally, self-interest can easily be twisted into a question-begging shape that is impossible to disprove. This is by far the most obnoxious way the idea is used. Take, for example, Robert Caro's view of Lyndon Johnson. He is simultaneously deeply impressed with how much Johnson achieved on civil rights, poverty, and the like, but is repelled by the man personally. Johnson was often a monster, who was cruel "for the sake of being cruel," but according to Caro he really tried to alleviate the plight of the poor using his power, and succeeded to a remarkable degree. So did Johnson really care about the poor, or was he just using them to get what he wanted? Or, did he just get a personal pleasure out of helping the poor, and therefore just did it to get a jolt of selfish pleasure and accomplishment?

These hypotheses may be partly or mostly true, but the obnoxious part is that no matter what the action, you can tell a self-interested story that explains it. Mother Teresa was just in it for the thrills and satisfaction. Martin Luther King did it for the accolades. Etc. But an explanation which cannot be disproved is ultimately of little use. It explains everything and therefore nothing.

For my part, I find Caro's human explanation of Johnson more convincing. He came from extreme poverty, and while he often was a terrible, cruel man, he genuinely sympathized with the poor and tried to help them because he thought it was the right thing to do. (In addition, of course, to lots of self-interested political reasons.)

Again, I don't deny that rational self-interest has a lot of explanatory power. But to try and jam all of human experience into that box mangles us beyond recognition. Often the most interesting, redemptive facets of humanity are where people escape from narrow, cynical self-dealing.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that