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FROM DECISIONISM TO RATIONAL CHOICE: A History of Political Decision-Making in the 20th Century

Final Report Summary - HIPODEMA (FROM DECISIONISM TO RATIONAL CHOICE: A History of Political Decision-Making in the 20th Century)

What constitutes a “political” decision and what makes political decision-making processes legitimate are notions that have changed considerably over the course of the 20th century. The objective of HIPODEMA was to understand this evolution and to shed light on the origins of our current representations of decisional processes, from rational choice to cybernetic schematics.

One of the first achievements of the project was to establish that “decision-making” emerged as a subject matter for the social sciences only after 1945. Before, decision-making did not constitute a focus of political science or economics – at best, it was a specialized issue confined to legal scholarship that applied narrowly to court decisions. After World War II, however, the number of articles in political science journals dealing with decision-making started to rise steadily. This was not only a statistical trend: “decision-making” eventually became the subject that defined the discipline. In 1966, Herbert Simon could plausibly argue that decision-making was not just a topic among others, but the “central core” of the discipline. A similar trend can be observed in economics: the initial skepticism with which economists looked at game theoretical representations of decision-making processes rapidly gave way to acceptance, and game theory eventually became conflated with the essence economic thinking. In other words, decision-making became the central problem of the social sciences in the decades following World War II.

The rise of decision-making as the focus of social science research also overlapped with the emergence of a new concept that also did not command attention before: rationality. Thus, the components of what would eventually become “rational choice” emerged jointly but independently starting in 1945.

HIPODEMA has traced this process and analyzed in detail some of its most important junctures. In particular, it has resituated it within the prior understanding of the sovereign political decision as the non-rational element of politics, theorized during the interwar years by thinkers as diverse as Karl Mannheim or Carl Schmitt. Postwar efforts at rationalizing political decision-making and reinvent it as “rational choice” were in fact responding to the need for developing guidelines for fundamental decisions that were either unprecedented (nuclear deployments) or eschewed the traditional mechanisms of deliberative will formation (existential and imminent threats, decisions under time constraint, etc.).

This is also why strategic studies and international relations theory, as fields dealing with emergency decisions usually subtracted to democratic mechanisms, were crucial in bridging between “decisionistic” vision of politics and formal models of “rational choice.” These developments also took place against the background of a general distrust of democratic publics, inherited from the interwar period and theorized by the social sciences. The result was a paradoxical process whereby “rational choice” designated decision protocols that were detached from the choosing subject: the rationality of decisions was an attribute of the decision itself, not of the deciding subject who, most of the time, was considered irrational.

From the Arrow theorem to sociological or political science work on rationality in politics, the various formalizations of “rational choice” – game theory, cybernetics or system theory, constitutional economics – thus sought to secure the rationality of political decisions against its instantiation in unreliable publics or collective institutions that could not produce satisfactory decisions.

HIPODEMA offers a deeper historical understanding of how the social sciences have understood political decision-making and sought to generate cognitive technologies to ensure the rationality of decisions.