“Rational” is the secular holy. We look to the rational—a most sacred and prestigious label in mind work—to save us. Yet some professors of a rational-is-holy faith aren’t being wholly rational. Their sect uses “rational” so differently it has become an unmeant trojan horse term. It looks good but hides destructive ideas.
In a useful comment (here) on my series of posts on problems in economics (here and here) Dr. Chris Auld gives cause for both hope and horror. He says “‘utility’ and ‘rational’ in economics...are scientific jargon: they do not have the same meaning as the lay...words.” This deserves attention (again). Words are key thinking tools. Misapplying them weakens what we can collectively build. Montaigne went so far as to call anyone who warped words “a traitor to society.” Some economists risk weakening our commonwealth of words by their covert meaning of “rational.”
The use of ‘utility’ as jargon is excusable, since it’s not that common a word. But jargonizing “rational” actively courts confusion. If economists mean something different, they should use a different word. Especially when preaching to the laity. If that gives their popularizing wordsmiths trouble, a simple prefixing can fix the problem: “econo-rational.” Unusual uses of common words can be intriguing and healthy. But breaking their meaning can be a sin against language. It degrades the utility of scholarship to society.
Jargon viruses from the unsocial-sciences are mostly easily quarantined; little harm has come from reusing the word “charm” to mean something different in nuclear physics. But social science jargon viruses are more contagious, easily spreading into everyday lives. That applies especially to economics and its cousin politics. Orwell warned against political language that made “lies sound truthful.”
Alarmingly, the econo-rational can oppose the human-rational. Econo-rationality creates the supposedly inevitable tragedy of the commons, but Elinor Olstrom has shown how human-rationality can avoid it by simple coordination. Econo-rationality condones maximizing self-interest by exploiting ‘the commons.’ It’s ok and desirable to do things that if others also do them, guarantee collective depletion and doom. Can that be rational? Damaging what we depend on should never be deemed rational. Only a blinkered and distorted kind of self-interest risks being so self-destructive. Tolerating this misuse of rational is like letting doctors call healthy what foreseeably causes illness. Till these sorts of ill-fated ideas are cured, popularized economics deserves criticism.
Dr. Auld says claims that “economists think markets are perfect” are mistaken. If so, Paul Krugman (addressing the laity in The New York Times) errs in saying: “economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly.”
The hope expressed above is that Dr. Auld represents a new sect of economists who have cured many of their professions old ills. If so I look forward to their more human-rational, better-communicated results. Meanwhile, much work remains to analyze and criticize the effect the work of economists, like those that Krugman targets, has on us lay folk. Our salvation may depend on it.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series: