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Jon Elster

Selected Works
introduction concepts and theories on this page links
Jon Elster has been one of my favourite writers since I was at university. In one of his books, he expresses regret that he failed to be a mathematician or a poet. Yet his books achieve an extraordinary sweep - from mathematical economic theory to insightful literary criticism - to understand the structures and processes of society. rational choice theory

hedonic framing / reframing

technical change - falling rate of profit


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Rational Choice Theory

veryard projects > books > elster > rational choice theory

Rational choice theory is far more than a technical tool for explaining behaviour. It is also, and very importantly, a way of coming to grips with ourselves - not only what we should do, but even what we should be."
Jon Elster, Some uresolved problems in the theory of rational behaviour, Acta Sociologica (1993), vol 36, p 179
more Rationality

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Delegation "The Chinese Communist Party has many sorts of power, but not the power to make itself powerless. … Economic agents will always fear that their rights will be abolished if the economy gets into trouble. … As a result the economics agents will adopt a short time horizon, and the system will indeed get into trouble."
[Jon Elster, Solomonic Judgements (CUP, 1989) pp 199-200]

Similarly, middle managers may fear that the authorities and responsibilities assigned to them by senior management may be altered at short notice either if the general circumstances change or if senior management have second thoughts. Unlike Ulysses, central planners have no way of tying their own hands. And the propensity of senior management to frequently reorganize further encourages middle managers to adopt a short time horizon.

Education Education as a public good creates a free-rider problem, in that everyone wants to have the benefits (through increased productivity) of the others’ education. Boudon argues that this classical approach conflicts with the inflation spiral: everyone wants to have more education than the others in order to enjoy an income differential.
see [Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 125]

But the high-status occupations do not necessarily correspond to the high-productivity occupations. There are two kinds of education (characterized as the two cultures: Liberal Arts versus Engineering and Science); the ruling class then concedes just enough status and salary to the engineers to encourage people to study engineering, and withdraws funding from Liberal Arts studies so that only the rich can afford it. Guess what education the ruling classes will have in the future ! [RV 90/2/4]

Genetic Coupling
"Evolutionary explanations do not take the narrow form ‘Feature X exists because it maximizes the genetic fitness of the organism.’ Rather their general form is ‘X exists because it is part of a package solution that at some time maximized the genetic fitness of the organism.’ The latter form allows for two facts that the former excludes. First, there is the omnipresent phenomenon of pleiotropy. A tendency to conform to a social norm might detract from genetic fitness and yet be retained by natural selection if it is the by-product of a gene whose main product is highly beneficial. Second, the general form allows for time lags. A social norm may be maladaptive today and yet have been adaptive at the stage in history when the human genome evolved and, for practical purposes, was fixed."
[Jon Elster, The Cement of Society (CUP, 1989) pp 149-150]
Fallacy of Division
Collective Decision
"An indecisive jury most probably is not composed of indecisive jurors; rather the contrary."
[Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 98]
"A person may take his umbrella, or leave it at home, without any ideas whatsoever concerning the weather, acting instead on general principles such as maximin or maximax reasoning, i.e. acting as if the worst or the best is certain to happen. He may also take or leave the umbrella because of some specific belief concerning the weather. … Someone may be totally ignorant and non-believing as regards the weather, and yet take his umbrella (acting as if he believes that it will rain) and also lower the sunshade (acting as if he believes that the sun will shine during his absence). There is no inconsistency in taking precautions against two mutually exclusive events, even if one cannot consistently believe that they will both occur." [Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 84]
Kantian ethics
Categorical Imperative
"No one ought to commit an action which would have disastrous consequences if committed by everyone. … If it would be disastrous if everyone did F, then surely it ought to be the case that not everyone did F, but more than this we cannot say. To single out some particular individual and say that he ought not do F, would be arbitrary." 
[Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 100]
"You cannot force someone to respect you, even though you can try to do so. The master would like to have both the satisfaction deriving from the recognition accorded to him by the slave and the satisfaction deriving from his absolute power over the slave."
[Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 72]

Thus the masters become the slaves of their slaves. "The masters desperately needed the gratitude of their slaves in order to define themselves as moral human beings. The slaves, by withholding it, drove a dagger into their masters’ self-image."
[Eugene Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll (New York, Pantheon, 1974) p 146]

"Stoicism is the slave as master; scepticism the slave as slave; the unhappy consciousness contains both master and slave within itself, in a relationship that has been compared to the between superego and ego." [Elster, op cit, p 92]

Power as finite
"The resort to sanctions in itself changes the balance of power; because those who effectively control the use of force are never exactly the same as those who invoked it." [Peter Marris, Meaning and Action: Community Planning and Conceptions of Change (2nd edition, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987) p 11] "The most efficacious power is exerted invisibly, through internalized norms rather than by overt sanctions … the use of power is an act of consumption rather than an act of investment." 
[Jon Elster, Logic and Society (John Wiley, 1978) p 73]

This only seems to apply to physical force. Influence develops by being exercised.

What about terrorism? Perhaps terror is inflationary - you need bigger and bigger bombs to get the same amount of press coverage. Tamerlane’s policy of Schrecklichkeit, exemplary atrocities, did not in fact deter places he had occupied from rebelling again and again.

Progress "Adolescence is a series of unsuccessful attempts to skip adolescence."[Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985) p 306]
Availability heuristic: the tendency to believe that the world at large is similar to the part of the world one knows. [Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge, 1985) p 466, quotes D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (eds), Judgement under uncertainty (Cambridge, 1982)]
Technical Change
"The neoclassical economists explain technical change in the light of profit maximization, whereas Marxists tend to argue that power rather than short-term profit is at stake. Within both traditions technical change is explained in the light of the goal to be achieved, although they impute different goals to the entrepreneur." 
[Jon Elster, Explaining Technical Change (?) p 10] 
Political Action
"When men strive to realize Utopia, they do not work to realize the optimum relative to given preferences, but more often to change men and their preferences."
[Jon Elster, Logic and Society (Chichester, John Wiley, 1978) p 132]

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Web Links

veryard projects > books > elster > web links

Jon Elster (Columbia University)
The Jon Elster Page (maintained by H Melberg)
Essay by Daniel Little (pdf) from New Horizons in Economic Thought: Appraisals of Leading Economists, edited by Warren Samuels (Edward Elgar Publishing, 1992

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Jon Elster. Alchemies of the Mind - Rationality and the Emotions

Cambridge University Press, 1999.

For at least two decades, one of Elster's goals has been to undermine and enrich the simplistic notions of rationality and choice found in economics and political science, and this is the latest of many books displaying his unique combination of rigorous analysis and poetic sensitivity, In this book, he analyses such phenomena as the transformation of one emotion into another, the guise or disguise of emotion, self-deception, and the complex systems of motivation and self-esteem. He draws on moral philosophers from Aristotle to Le Rochefoucauld, and takes many examples from literature (especially Jane Austen). alchemies of the mind
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