About a week ago, John McCumber wrote a piece in the New York Times called “The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy.” What I found most interesting about it was McCumber’s claim that the RAND corporation developed and promoted rational choice philosophy as a weapon in America’s fight against communism.
Rational choice theory’s essential notion is something like this: If an individual wants to buy hot pink lipstick, she will seek the path allowing her to get the most hot pink lipstick for the lowest possible price.
McCumber makes the claim that such ideas have come to seem like common sense, not because they are obviously true, but because RAND and other government controlled or funded organizations propagandized relentlessly on their behalf until they were accepted as common knowledge. These ideas are among those that “everyone knows” -- even though they’re not true.
Of course rational choice theory is riddled with problems, beginning with the notion that "wanting hot pink lipstick" is a given that itself requires no investigation.
Individualism lies at the heart of rational choice theory and has come to be enshrined in American culture generally. And, not coincidentally, has also provided an enduring philosophical bulwark against Marxism.
According to McCumber, individualism and rational choice theory gradually became the unquestioned “common sense” of American life only because of behind-the-scenes efforts by powerful institutions.
“The overall operation was wildly successful. Once established in universities, rational choice philosophy moved smoothly on the backs of their pupils into the 'real world' of business and government …Today, governments and businesses across the globe simply assume that social reality is merely a set of individuals freely making rational choices.”
“[A]nti-regulation policies are crafted to appeal to the view that government must in no way interfere with Americans’ freedom of choice. Even religions compete in the marketplace of salvation, eager to be chosen by those who, understandably, prefer heaven to hell. Today’s most zealous advocates of individualism, be they on Wall Street or at Tea Parties, invariably forget their origins in a long ago program of government propaganda.”
Individualism, he might have added, is also the premise on which many white people (who have long enjoyed the non-individualistic privileges bestowed on them by racial prejudices) base their claims of “reverse discrimination.”
Without wanting to claim that individual effort has no use or validity, I nonetheless happily cast my lot with those who argue that rational choice theory and the individualism with which it is intertwined are over-promoted in our culture. The result of this over-promotion is a kind of mass ignorance about some of the most important forces shaping our lives.
McCumber describes religions as portrayed as if they operated in a “marketplace of salvation,” yet clearly people do not, as a rule, rationally choose their religious beliefs. Such beliefs are usually instilled in childhood through the force of community and family attachments and accepted without rational testing.
The same could be said for the language one speaks. Those of us who speak English as our first language did not “rationally choose” to do so. English was programmed into us the way software is programmed into a computer. No reason, no choice, and very little individualism.
Granted, we are not automatons flapping our lips meaninglessly or acting mechanically and without individual agency. But we would be a lot better off if we were to recognize the limits of our individual “freedoms,” and the impacts of those forces that so often lift us up or send us crashing downward. Unfortunately, there are still quite a few influential opinion shapers working overtime to keep us from recognizing these limits, and they have succeeded in characterizing those who question individualism as anti-American.
So I'll wrap up with this quote from a pre-twentieth century observer of American single-mindedness:
I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. – Alexis de Tocqueville
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