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Collective and Individual Rationality: Some Episodes in the History of Economic Thought

Denis, A. (2001). Collective and Individual Rationality: Some Episodes in the History of Economic Thought. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University, London)


This thesis argues for the fundamental importance of the opposition between holistic and reductionistic world-views in economics. Both reductionism and holism may nevertheless underpin laissez-faire policy prescriptions. Scrutiny of the nature of the articulation between micro and macro levels in the writings of economists suggests that invisible hand theories play a key role in reconciling reductionist policy prescriptions with a holistic world. An examination of the prisoners' dilemma in game theory and Arrow's impossibility theorem in social choice theory sets the scene. The prisoners' dilemma epitomises the collective irrationality coordination problems lead to. The source of the dilemma is identified as the combination of interdependence in content and independence in form of the decision making process. Arrovian impossibility has been perceived as challenging traditional views of the relationship between micro and macro levels in economics. Conservative arguments against the possibility in principle of a social welfare function are criticised here as depending on an illicit dualism. The thesis then reviews the standpoints of Smith, Hayek and Keynes. For Smith, the social desirability of individual self-seeking activity is ensured by the 'invisible hand' of a god who has moulded us so to behave, that the quantity of happiness in the world is always maximised. Hayek seeks to re-establish the invisible hand in a secular age, replacing the agency of a deity with an evolutionary mechanism. Hayek's evolutionary theory, criticised here as being based on the exploded notion of group selection, cannot underpin the desirability of spontaneous outcomes. I conclude by arguing that Keynes shares the holistic approach of Smith and Hayek, but without their reliance on invisible hand mechanisms. If spontaneous processes cannot be relied upon to generate desirable social outcomes then we have to take responsibility for achieving this ourselves by establishing the appropriate institutional framework to eliminate macroeconomic prisoners' dilemmas.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Economics
School of Policy & Global Affairs > School of Policy & Global Affairs Doctoral Theses
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