Talk about 'the death of the rational man' resurfaces

June 12, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

In "The Death of Rational Man" (Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2009), columnist David Ignatius reports about a newly formed group representing "behavioral economics." They think the old idea of a marketplace dominated by rational people who make rational marketing decisions is no longer tenable. They are convinced the current financial crisis is proof of irrational psychological behavior in current marketplace transactions.

The most notable economist put forward in support of their point of view is John M. Keynes, who is said to be "the godfather of behavioral economics" because of his attention given to fear and greed evident in the marketplace. There are some very illustrious thinkers who have sounded off on the commanding power of impulse over reason in the affairs of men. They have paved the way for those who preach "behavioral economics" and suppose humans are a strange mix of St. Paul and St. Vitus.

There is hardly a better place to begin than 1537, the year in which Nicolo Machiavelli published "The Prince." Said to be "The Bible for dictators," this book was indeed a preferred source of ideas for Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini that recommended expediency as the guiding principle of a ruler. Machiavelli writes, "For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain." These are not the qualities required on which to base a "rational man" theory.


Thomas Hobbes, tutor to the Prince of Wales (later to be Charles II) was another spokesman for the dismal side of mankind. His opinion is almost certain to be in any creditable political philosophy book. He writes that life is a perpetual war of "everyman against everyman" and "worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Keynes is a mere shadow of Hobbes.

Some 90 years later, David Hume, a most influential thinker, spoke out on the power of passions over reason. Hume made the admission that reason could excel in such purely rational activity as creating the propositions of geometry. But reason could not control the will to act. As Hume put it, "Reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

One might say Hobbes and Hume were "Freudians before Freud" in their recognition of the power of our passions over reason. One has but to recall the power of the subterranean, irrational, pleasure-seeking animal impulses ascribed to the id and the difficulty of the ego (reality) and super ego (conscience) to keep the id in check to appreciate the subordinate role of reason.

All of the foregoing students of human nature grounded their assumptions on a study of people in society and in history to arrive at their judgments of human nature. The most prominent view today is grounded on theology and is more all pervasive and encompassing in its reach. By this view, mankind's perpetual inclination toward the impulsive, irrational and self-centered conduct is the result of misconduct in a pre-social garden of original perfection that was ravaged by original sin.

No time was lost in making the point. The very first family had a wife who convinced her husband to break a solemn rule and a son who committed the first murder. The influence of this story (some say myth) is still evident in explaining human frailty. This mythological story has morphed into a theology that makes the amazing claim that because of the sin of one man, every human being born thereafter has inherited a tainted will that predisposes them to wrong doing. Jimmy Carter was right when he said life is not fair.

If there is any validity to the view that passion trumps reason, society must find a way to keep order among so many cantankerous and unruly creatures. Thomas Hobbes proposed the creation of a "Leviathan," a powerful state that had a monopoly of power to keep order. Such an idea is unacceptable to those who believe in democratic values. A more acceptable plan was proposed by James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 51.

Madison envisioned a system of government that took into account the factional propensities of human nature by placing a system of separation of powers, along with a series of checks and balances to restrain antisocial actions. Madison wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature."

It should be no surprise that talk about "the death of rational man" should resurface after such a monumental display of greed and mismanagement by the very elite of our society. No "rational man" would have so recklessly gambled with the hard work and savings entrusted to their care. Lacking an internal policeman and external policeman is now in order. Reason must keep pace with impulse if the market is to function.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College

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