THE ORIGINS: CHOICE IN ECONOMICS
In this, the first substantive chapter, we will explore some of the starting assumptions that are found in perhaps the most dominant of the social sciences, and certainly the one evoked as the source of ideas about reason and choice being a logical, rational matter. This is the discipline of economics, which has often been thought of as the most 'scientific' of the social science trades, doubtless because of its insistence on rigorous mathematical modelling. Perhaps more importantly for us, this modelling is based on what looks like simple assumptions - that people are motivated by self-interest, and specifically by money. Something that is less often stated is that the simplifying assumptions are precisely what allow models to be built in the first place. When these assumptions are described in detail (something we shall do shortly), many people would (rightly) observe that real people aren't like that, and that they are more complex than the picture the economists paint, but they would be wrong to conclude that economists aren't aware of this. The very fact that economists term their assumptions 'simplifying' indicates their awareness that actual situations in the lives of individuals - even when confined to the economic sphere - are much more complex than can be captured by the economic perspective. But part of the reason why this doesn't worry economists is that their problem is not to understand how individual minds work; it is to understand how economies work. It is not what the model starts with (or consists in) that matters - the individual, the actor, the subject; it is what this ends with - the imagined economy. The basic model of homo economicus is provided not so as to draw non-economists into accepting a thoroughly misleading idea of what people are like - though this almost certainly is a consequence it can have - but in order to provide initial traction in working out how economies considered as an ensemble of innumerable economic choices organise themselves.
Having said that, the starting place of economics, though simple and regarded as such by economists themselves, as we say, needs some examination. If we recall the fish, chips and cake example from the first chapter, what we see is that economists make decisions about what choice looks like that preclude other apparently just as simple and reasonable starting places. They do this under the umbrella terms 'rationality' and 'rational action' in such a fashion that it is all too easy to forget quite how consequential their choice about choice can turn out to be.
To be economically rational
One can begin to explore this by recalling that the term 'rational' is often used in everyday language to describe the quality of people's reasoning, typically in reference to some situation. 'They think about it logically', one might say. But this usage doesn't imply that that person so described is therefore making the right decision; they may or they may not. What the phrase labels is merely the character of the reasoning process: it was or is logical. In this view, rational action originates in rational thought. Whether that is 'good' thought or appropriate action is another question.
For economists, the use of the term means something much more particular - something that relates to the ordering of preferences. At the most basic level, it implies that people choose on the basis of preferences which are hierarchical. When economists use the term 'rational' they also take for granted that this ordering is consistent through time - otherwise it would not be possible to predict people's actions on the basis of their preferences. Basically, how people act today will be how they act tomorrow. In addition, though this is not necessarily implied when they say 'rational' (it being more a question of hope), economists treat people's