More Peter Lawler

Let me begin by saying that I’m far more unimpressed by the contribution of behavioral economists than even Wright and Ginsburg. The perception that people aren’t hardwired, so to speak, to always act — in their own interests has only been challenged by those who have made the error of imagining that all human behavior either is or should be all about rational choice on the level of interests. Similarly, Simon’s alleged breakthrough that people are content to “satisfice” rather than maximize when it comes to choice is little more than common sense. Most people, most of the time, don’t have either the time or the inclination to do the calculating required to achieve maximizing. Economists have given a lot of thought, for example, to calculating about how much to tip, but most people barely give it a thought.

A gentleman or a generous man appears not to care—and really doesn’t care—about being precise when it comes to such trivialities. Is his disinclination to calculate contrary to his self-interest? That question can be answered only by someone who knows what his true interests are. That answer, it seems to me, is obviously beyond the competence of the economist. The economist does have the inclination to believe that the person moved by honor or glory is a sucker, while the “entrepreneur” oriented around wealth and power is the model of human excellence. But we might say the economist as economist has no right to make that distinction. Economists do have to acknowledge that General George Washington and General Nathan Bedford Forrest were much greater risk takers than Bill Gates. And people who put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line (I don’t mean Newt Gingrich) have laughed at the thought that the point of life is autonomy, at least as understood by John Stuart Mill.

The economist has no way of knowing if the artist or statesman or philosopher (such as Thomas Jefferson) who was so lacking in prudence that he took in huge amounts of money but still died poor was happier than, say, the Steve Jobs who died really, really rich. Nobody knows whether Blaise Pascal or Friedrich Nietzsche or Charley Parker would have been happier had they calculated—in the manner of one of today’s “risk taking” bourgeois bohemian innovative entrepreneurs—more about their health and wealth. We wish they could have displayed their excellence while being more sensible, but it’s not for us to say that they could have successfully “satisficed” had they had better guidance. Pascal and Parker were nothing if not risk takers, but economists at are a loss when it comes to explaining their behavior. And the behavioral economist would have nudged the heck out of them against their true inclinations—allegedly for their own good.

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