Yochai Benkler on the End of Universal Rationality

How the myth of wholly self-interested individuals is holding us back

Edge is one of my favourite online newsletters, and I really wish I had more time to read each issue. Issue 279 has a great essay/video by Yochai Benkler, co-direcetor of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He discusses the gradual (though far from complete) abandonment of the self-interest-maximizing homo economicus over the last fifteen to twenty years, focusing on sociology, management practices and poli-sci (in addition, obviously, to economics).

The implication that part of the reason the big three automakers (particularly GM) are currently in the poor shape they’re in is due to their inaccurate and damaging model of human motivation and action is compelling. I certainly don’t profess to know to what extent that is true, but any corporate culture in which executives would fly in their private jets to beg for bailout money is surely off-kilter to some degree.

I recall a (fairly) recent CBC Ideas episode about the social determinants of health in which a British expert on the matter, discussing the effects of social cohesion, related a story in which a British executive of some corporation or other had recently laid of thousands of employees, and then turned around and given himself a bonus or raise or something. Had such layoffs taken place in Japan, said the British epidemiologist, such behaviour would have been utterly shameful, and the executive would rather have taken a deferential attitude, recognizing the loss that, while perhaps necessary from some perspectives, was nevertheless a genuine loss, and not the occasion for a boost to exceutive pay.

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