More on Rational Irrationality

In response to may last post on this subject, Abigail very correctly noted that the consequences of rational irrationality are not unique to this past election, nor recurrent to every, but rather universal, reflective of society turning towards statism.  While I do not believe that this observation invalidates my previous argument (and, in fact, even strengthens it), I believe that the relationship between this general ideological shift and rationality bears closer examination.

For clarity, I would like to introduce two definitions of rationality, one practical and the other intellectual, the distinction between which is key to correctly understanding the seeming paradox of rational irrationality. Practical rationality means “pursuing the course of action with the highest expected utility”. Note that this definition does not imply action from perfect knowledge or perfect decision-making, nor does it ignore rational ignorance (intentionally remaining ignorant because expected costs of acquiring additional information exceed expected benefits from that information), but rather that, for a given set of judgements concerning the conditions of action and the expected effects of possible actions, one chooses the action expected to achieve the most-preferred distribution of future states of nature. Thus, choosing an improper means to an end while believing that they are appropriate is not prima facie irrational, while so choosing while aware of a better means is. On the other hand, intellectual rationality means “holding beliefs consistent both among each other and with their respective grounds”. Thus, to hold contradictory beliefs or to derive a belief inconsistent with its ground (in light of one’s other beliefs) manifests intellectual irrationality.

Most confusion regarding rational irrationality seems to arise from this analogical use of rationality within the term; in the first instance practical rationality is meant; in the second, intellectual. Thus, a literal expansion of “rational irrationality” would be “holding inconsistent beliefs as an appropriate means to an end”.

Such behavior is prevalent in modern society. One of my favorite examples is the “environmentally conscious” celebrity who advocates human extinction. I fail to see how someone can reconcile that belief with his own continued life, unless he holds that his life is temporarily necessary to advance the cause of death. Similarly, one frequently finds multi-millionaire celebrities who give little of their own great incomes to the poor advocating income redistribution to the point of equalitarianism, or wealthy private businessmen supporting socialism.1 If one desires socialism, is not the first step to relinquish one’s own property to the state? In each of these cases, the individual is advocating government enforcement of a certain path of behavior, while deliberately refusing to follow that path themselves. It could be argued that these behaviors manifest simple egotism, as the person advocates altruism when others bear the cost and selfishness. But why would an egotist who cares nothing for the welfare of others, or the environment, or socialism, go to any trouble to advocate them publically? And would not someone who sincerely believed such causes suffer terribly from the guilt of fortune, life, or private ownership? It seems to me that these people are sincere both in their public exhortation and private action. But then, as income redistribution and socialism are improper means to nearly all ends, why should so many who desire a certain end choose the same improper means? Thus, we must somehow explain their systematically inconsistent and mistaken beliefs. The most plausible solution I have yet encountered is that such people maintain their (intellectual) rationality because it is (practically) rational, allowing them to derive the satisfaction of altruism and the wealth of egotism.

I agree that society is being consumed by menacing ideologies, by socialism, by equalitarianism: “A spectre is haunting Europe”: the cult of the state. But this spectre is not simple concern for the poor, the environment, or state control; were that the case, the advocates of the poor would donate to charity, the advocates of human extinction would extinct themselves, and the advocates of socialism would become poor. The latter two cases would be regrettable, certainly, but not one of these actions substantially threatens society. Nor is this spectre simple bad judgement; typically, those who judge poorly quickly discover and correct their error. This spectre is terrifying because it claims the terrible power of the state; lasting because it stems from unquestionable rationality.

Rational irrationality has thus supported a rising tide of devastating ideology. What is to be done? To some, the problem seems insurmountable, for rational irrationality is inherent to the process of elections, of divided responsibility and power, of the state itself. But at the same time, the presentation of rational irrationality presents its own solution. Insofar as it is possible, make each decision powerful by itself or powerless as a whole. More generally, ensure that each decision maker reaps as many of the costs and benefits of his action as possible. Elections fail because voters do not suffer any harm, nor do they receive the material benefit, in the vast majority of situations. Political offices fail because the office holder does not benefit, or benefits only in a limited, artificial manner,2 from his good decisions. Only the competition of a free market, where the inefficient businessman suffers certain losses and the efficient gains profits, preserves as much as possible natural consequences. Thus, the lesson I draw from rational irrationality is that as many decisions as possible ought to be determined by free action, with the market coordinating interpersonal transactions.

1 Socialism, strictly speaking, refers to the state ownership of capital, and not to income redistribution. Mere support of income redistribution merits another term, which I cannot at this time remember.

2 I call artificial a consequence of an action made so only by the deliberate action of another. Thus, a performance benefit for beneficial action is an artificial benefit, while a share in the innate benefits is a natural. I do not condemn artificial benefits, as for example the deterrent function of punishment, but I hold it to be inferior to natural benefits, as natural benefit can not be distorted and artificial can.

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