Often when I am trying to explain problems in the modern political landscape or my own approach to political philosophy, I will return to Max Weber’s account of bureaucracy as more efficient than private office. Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about “efficiency” in bureaucracy, but Weber’s argument rested on the contrast between private and capricious office-holders and the public and publicly accountable form of governance that characterizes both state and business organization. Weber’s concern was that bureaucracies were too efficient, that their tremendous instrumental rationality obscured a real stupidity about the best ends to pursue. Weber’s theory of bureaucracy was vindicated in the way that Nazi Germany efficiently murdered its Jews, Rom, homosexuals, and communists, and ever since there’s been a tendency to get distracted by the Nazi example whenever the amoral efficiency of bureaucratic regimes are mentioned.
My own interest is in the tension between proceduralism and participation, but this strikes many people as odd and potentially pernicious, since some of my concerns about the administrative state are echoed by populists and the Tea Party activists. (I like to point out to my fellow philosophers that Glenn Beck’s writers have clearly been reading Giorgio Agamben.)
The thing is, I think the most pressing kind of political philosophy, the research that really needs to be done right now, is a philosophical investigation of the contemporary formulation of bureaucratic governance. In short, it’s time to resurrect the tension between the predictive power of social scientists and human freedom. This is the stuff of mid-20th Century existentialism: Heidegger’s criticisms of technology, Sartre’s anxieties about freedom, and to-and-fro of structuralism and post-structuralism and the crisis and critique of the human sciences that runs through Adorno, Foucault, and Derrida. All these Continental philosophical debates largely occurred at just about the same time that Anglo-American philosophers had become obsessed with freedom and determinism, modal logic and counter-factuals, artificial intelligence and qualia, and the question of scientific realism. These questions, it seems to me, are all very much of a piece. Even as they presented themselves as valuable avenues of research and live debates of scholastic importance, they also captured a epochal anxiety about singularity and freedom, the global battle between communist “technocrats” and capitalist “risk-takers.”
I’m simplifying mightily, of course. But when you read with the question of bureaucracy in mind, it’s amazing how often it shows up in surprising places. Take my favorite thinker of the period, Hannah Arendt. In a 1964 lecture on “Cybernetics,” Arendt said:
When I grew up, it was still very common and very fashionable to believe that people who knew how to play chess very well were very intelligent indeed. If today we know that some kinds of these machines — I’m not going to say and names — can play a reasonably good game of chess, then I think it is a question of human dignity to say that this kind of intelligence apparently has not the same status as other kinds of intelligence, as other kinds of thinking. In other words, it is still something technical and it resides still in such a thing which we may accurately call brain power…. but it does not say anything about the level, or about the special particularities of this human being as such.
Is this really only about computers, or “human diginity”? The best way to think about her anxiety here is through the lens of two kinds of rationality: calculation and practical wisdom.
Many decisions are easily calculable in terms of costs and benefits, risks and probabilities. Because many very difficult decisions depend on the evaluating one’s own costs and benefits alongside the cost-benefit calculations of others, it can be tempting to think of these decisions as incalculable. After all, the mind of the Other is unknowable, just as the future is full of surprising and incalculable risks. Unfortunately, this temptation is dangerous. When the stakes are high, human beings tend to act in highly instrumental ways, and to adopt strategies that are easily calculable in the same way as chess moves would be. Because most moves are easily dominated, their real options are remarkably limited, and a well-programmed chess game can out-predict even the best grandmasters.
We’re all technocrats now, capitalists more than anybody. Consider the case of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who uses rational choice theory to predict the future. For $50,000, he’ll answer two questions, and many people would think the money well spent:
His first foray into forecasting controversy took place in 1984, when he published an article in PS, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, predicting who would succeed Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Khomeini upon his death. He had developed a rudimentary forecasting model that was different from anything anyone had seen before in that it was not designed around one particular foreign-policy problem, but could be applied to any international conflict. “It was the first attempt at a general mathematical model of international conflict,” he says. His model predicted that upon Khomeini’s death, an ayatollah named Hojatolislam Khamenei and an obscure junior cleric named Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would emerge to lead the country together. At the time, Rafsanjani was so little known that his name had yet to appear in the New York Times.
Even more improbably, Khomeini had already designated his successor, and it was neither Ayatollah Khamenei nor Rafsanjani. Khomeini’s stature among Iran’s ruling clerics made it inconceivable that they would defy their leader’s choice. At the APSA meeting subsequent to the article’s publication, Bueno de Mesquita was roundly denounced as a quack by the Iran experts—a charlatan peddling voodoo mathematics. “They said I was an idiot, basically. They said my work was evil, offensive, that it should be suppressed,” he recalls. “It was a very difficult time in my career.” Five years later, when Khomeini died, lo and behold, Iran’s fractious ruling clerics chose Ayatollah Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani to jointly lead the country. At the next APSA meeting, the man who had been Bueno de Mesquita’s most vocal detractor raised his hand and publicly apologized to him.
Using game theory, mathematical modeling, and a panel of regional experts, Bueno de Mesquita can beat the best estimates of individual experts and the entire US intelligence community. His work has only one premise: “In the future, we’re still all raging dirtbags.” The CIA has claimed that his estimations are 90% accurate. Wow!
Rational choice theory promises us a world in which decisions are easily calculable because their results are precisely calibrated. The right choice would then be the one given by a calculation, not a decision taken by a free agent. We might wrangle over values and normative claims, but even these disputes can often be solved by making utility maximizing decisions that remove either-or decisions and make them both-and decisions: if we need not choose between our values, our pluralism can go unchallenged. That means that Bueno de Mesquita can resolve problems that would otherwise be unresolvable:
Recently, he’s applied his science to come up with some novel ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”
Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”
A real crisis is one where sides cannot easily be chosen. If a formula always comes up with better decisions than I and my fellow citizens do, I think we’d all rather that the formula and its statistician-caretakers do the governing. That kind of proceduralism takes the average citizen out of the picture, or rather reduces her to a datapoint alongside others.
In a sense, the increased effectiveness of bureaucracies translates into reduced freedom for me. If political engagement is an important public good (and I believe it is) then bureaucratic predictiveness will lead to a maldistribution in that good: statisticians will get more of it, and regular folks less. For that reason, I’m really, really uncomfortable with predictive rational choice theory. It’s not the resolutely self-interested view of the world Bueno de Mesquita advances that troubles me, the whole “raging dirtbag” shtick. It is, as Arendt put it, a “question of human dignity.” This is the very reason that Bueno de Mesquita refuses to handicap elections. The intersection of polling data and predictive technologies already contribute to a drastic narrowing of political outcomes in US elections. The capacity to know becomes the requirement to know.
In contrast, practical wisdom doesn’t depend on a person’s predictive powers. It allows one to surf that wave between the good and the possible that is characterized by intense risk and unforeseeability. For this reason, many philosophers see it as a corrective to our overly managed and predictable world. In exercising practical wisdom, I don’t want to act ‘rationally,’ according to a ratio or pre-ordained measure: I want to act wisely, i.e. with a view towards a Good that we can all only see in part. Those endowed with great practical wisdom ask: how can I act in a way that every model would call contrary to ‘self-interest,’ that can rocket us out of the one realm of calculation and into another? This will involve a great deal of reasoning, measuring, and calculating, but it should also entail a risk, a chance, fortuna out of which virtu can appear.
All the objections about incomplete information, lack of normative scope, and observer/participant problems pale before my anxiety that something essential about our freedom is lost when it can be reduced to a statistical abstraction that is nonetheless accurate. That’s why I love black swans, emergent events, and secret revolutions so very much. But that love would be pathological if it came at the expense of the well-being of the least-advantaged. I’m increasingly persuaded that attachment to civic engagement requires a non-epistemic justification, and that we must temper our love of administrative governance with the cautions of mid-20th Century existential phenomenologists like Hannah Arendt.