Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The End of Universal Rationality

Mark Thoma points to Yochai Benkler on the question of what's going to replace current models of economic rationality:

Yochai Benkler discusses the use of the "assumption of universal rationality and a sub-assumption that what that rationality tries to do is maximize returns to the self" as a primary analytical foundation for our models of sociological, political, and economic behavior:

The End of Universal Rationality, The Edge: The big question I ask myself is how we start to think much more methodically about human sharing, about the relationship between human interest and human morality and human society. The main moment at which I think you could see the end of an era was when Alan Greenspan testified before the House committee and said, "My predictions about self-interest were wrong. I relied for 40 years on self-interest to work its way up, and it was wrong." For those of us like me who have been working on the Internet for years, it was very clear you couldn't encounter free software and you couldn't encounter Wikipedia and you couldn't encounter all of the wealth of cultural materials that people create and exchange, and the valuable actual software that people create, without an understanding that something much more complex is happening than the dominant ideology of the last 40 years or so. But you could if you weren't looking there, because we were used in the industrial system to think in these terms.

A lot of what I was spending my time on in the 90s and the 2000s was to understand why it is that these phenomena on the Net are not ephemeral. Why they're real. But I think in the process of understanding that, I had to go back and ask, where are we really in between this what's-in-it-for-me versus the great altruists and the stories of Stahanovich and the self-sacrifice for the community?

Both of them are false. But the question is, how do we begin to build a new set of stories that will let us understand both? The stories are actually relatively easy. How we build actual, tractable analysis that allows us to convert what in some sense we all know, that some of us are selfish and some of us aren't. That actually most of us are more selfish some of the time and less selfish other of the time and in different relations. That we don't all align according to the standard economic model of selfish rationality, but that we're also not saints. Mother Teresa wouldn't be Mother Teresa if everybody were like her.

So this is the puzzle that I'm really trying to chew on now, which is how we move from knowing this intuitively and having a folk wisdom about it to something that probably won't in any immediate future have the tractability and precision of mainstream economics. Not, by the way, that as we sit here today, mainstream economics necessarily enjoys the high status that it might have a few years ago, but nonetheless so that we will be able to start building systems in the same way that we thought about building organizational systems around compensation, like options that ties the incentives of the employees to that of the business, like we thought with regard to political science that's completely pervaded today by the understanding of, how does politics happen? Well, it depends on what the median voter wants and what the median Senator wants, and all of that.

We have a lot of sophisticated analyses that try, with great precision, to predict and describe existing systems in terms of an assumption of universal rationality and a sub-assumption that what that rationality tries to do is maximize returns to the self. Yet we live in a world where that's not actually what we experience. The big question now is how we cover that distance between what we know very intuitively in our social relations, and what we can actually build with.

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