Rationalistic Hubris and Opportunistic Behavior
| Peter Lewin |
The October 2011 issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization is a special issue on the work of James Buchanan, guest edited by Pete Boettke, arising out of a recent FFSO conference. In addition to Boettke, the contributors are Kliemt, Marciano, Munger, Leeson, G. Vanberg, Voigt, Horwitz, Besley, Coyne, and Horn on a variety of topics. Amartya Sen and Elinor Ostrom contributed short appreciations. This issue is full of good stuff on a variety of topics.
I focus here on the lead article by Pete Boettke somewhat clumsily entitled, “Teaching Economics, Appreciating Spontaneous Order, and Economics as a Public Science.” For my part, this article alone makes the issue worthwhile getting. Boettke presents an overview of the many facets of Buchanan’s work (and as they developed over his career) helpfully connecting and contrasting it with Hayek. Some of these ideas are directly relevant to the organization and management context.
At the risk of distorting oversimplification, we may say that whereas Hayek concentrated on the problem of rationalistic hubris, Buchanan concentrated on the problem of opportunistic behavior. Both are inevitable and related problems of social systems, and each of their works thus complements the other. In a nutshell, each is an in-depth protracted examination of the knowledge problem and the incentive problem, respectively.
As points of emphasis in their respective works, Hayek concentrated on the limits on man’s knowledge at the abstract level, and the contextual nature of the knowledge residing in the economy at the concrete level, while Buchanan stressed the institutional/organizational logic of politics and the systemic incentives that different rule environments generate. In both, however, the central message of same players, different rules, produce different games is seen throughout their work in comparative political economy. To Hayek the puzzle was how to limit the rationalistic hubris of men, to Buchanan the puzzle was how to limit the opportunistic impulse of men. Both found hope in what they called a “generality norm” embedded in a constitutional contract — no law shall be passed, or rule established which privileges one group of individuals in society.
Hayek uses an evolutionary approach and Buchanan a “veil of ignorance” contractarian approach. But both are surely applicable to organizations of all types.