Jon Elster

Jon Elster is the author of Logic and Society and Ulysses and the Sirens. He is a lecturer at the University of Oslo.

Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster, 25 April 1991

Nobody really knows what’s happening in China. Analysis must proceed from triangulation, relying on a few uncontroversial facts, specific knowledge about the Chinese past and general knowledge about the dilemmas and solutions that emerge in countries in similar predicaments. History matters for a number of reasons. One is that similar causes tend to produce similar effects. China’s topography, weather and soil impose perennial constraints on warfare and agriculture. A striking example is found in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China: ‘Chiang Kai-shek [in 1949] had roughly the same range of options that had faced the southern Ming court once the Manchus had seized Peking and the North China plain 305 years before. He could try to consolidate a regime in central or southern China, perhaps in Nanjing, relying on the Yangzi river as a natural barrier; he could try to consolidate in the south-west, or establish a coastal base in the Ximan region of Fujian or in Canton; or he could use Taiwan as a base, as Koxinga [a naval warrior fighting the Manchus in the 1650s] had done.’ Even more obviously, Chinese agriculture is dominated by immutable natural conditions. It is not surprising that Karl Wittfogel, perhaps the foremost advocate of geographical determinism in our century, was also a specialist on China.

When Communism dissolves

Jon Elster, 25 January 1990

A minimal definition of a well-ordered society is that its drivers stop when they see a red light. Some episodes that indicate why people on occasion fail to respect red lights can also, incidentally, illuminate the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of recent political events.

Jon Elster goes to China

Jon Elster, 27 October 1988

With an American friend I recently spent two weeks travelling in China at the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Besides lecturing, our main purpose was to understand the economic reforms in Chinese industry. The three cities we visited, Changzhou, Shanghai and Wenzhou, offer three different models of reform. The first two are experimenting with more independence for state and collective enterprises, whereas in Wenzhou private entrepreneurs and capitalism are emerging as the vehicle of change. For the purpose of grasping what is happening in China, the visit was like scratching the surface of the visible tip of an iceberg. We were not able to see much, and our understanding of what we saw was no doubt limited, distorted and superficial. Yet the scale of (intentional) reform and (unintended) change is such that even untrained observers like ourselves could perceive them in rough outline, especially since the Chinese scholars we met helped us sort out many initial confusions.

Second-Decimal Arguments

Jon Elster, 23 May 1985

Reading Richard Wollheim’s study of what it is to live the life of a person was a frustrating, painful experience. Perhaps it can best be summarised by saying that while the book goes to great lengths to ensure precision in the second decimal, it leaves us in the dark about the first. Wollheim has a marvellously knowledgeable and intelligent mind. Of the numerous topics discussed here, many are brilliantly illuminated and some receive better treatment than I have ever come across. Yet these displays of ingenuity and inventiveness take place against the opaque background of psychoanalytic theory, which the reader is more or less asked to accept on faith. There are two puzzles here. One is: why should I believe all this? The other is: why doesn’t Wollheim see that he must offer me reasons to believe it? Psychoanalysis is, after all, only one of a large array of theories of the mind, and Wollheim’s version of it only one of the many which are available.


Jon Elster, 15 November 1984

Optimism and wishful thinking have been features of socialist thought from its inception. In Marx, for instance, two main premises appear to be that whatever is desirable is possible, and that whatever is desirable and possible is inevitable. John Dunn’s short book is much concerned with the disastrous consequences of this Utopian strand in socialism. He argues that socialists, if they want to be taken seriously, must show that the society they propose is economically viable, and that the process of getting there is politically feasible. He also comes close to saying, without ever actually doing so, that neither demonstration will succeed. The cumulative impact of the difficulties that he urges socialists to confront is such that one wonders why he doesn’t simply tell them to pack it in.

Rules of the Game

Jon Elster, 22 December 1983

Raymond Aron died of a heart attack on 17 October, a few weeks after the publication of his memoirs. He died on the steps of the Paris courthouse where he had been testifying on behalf of his friend Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had been violently attacked in a book on French Fascism. The case was not a simple one, as de Jouvenel had said and done some imprudent things in the Thirties. Yet Aron, painting truth in its grey on grey, had no difficulty showing that the attack was fundamentally anachronistic: that it imputed to de Jouvenel and his contemporaries knowledge of events that had not yet occurred. In court he said that ‘nous, les hommes de cette génération, nous étions désespérés de la faiblesse des démocraties.’ In the Memoirs he is more specific: ‘il m’est arrivé par instants de penser, peut-être de dire tout haut: s’il faut un régime autoritaire pour sauver la France, soit, acceptons-le, tout en le détestant.’ The honesty is characteristic. No less typical, and more central to an understanding of his character, is the fact that he did not commit his thoughts to paper, or transform them into action. Though desperate, he was too lucid to embrace a remedy that would be worse than the disease.

The Crisis in Economic Theory

Jon Elster, 20 October 1983

The publication of these two books is a landmark in the development of economic theory. Singly and jointly, they represent a fundamental challenge to the reigning neoclassical orthodoxy. The more sophisticated practitioners of that theory have long recognised that it is in deep trouble, but have stuck to it because of the lack of a viable alternative, on the principle that you can’t beat something with nothing. Whatever objections one may have to neo-classical economics, it certainly is something: a highly-developed and formalised body of thought which has been applied to a wide range of practical and theoretical issues. One would hesitate before saying that the work of Marx, Schumpeter or Herbert Simon was ‘nothing’, and the ‘sophisticated practitioners’ referred to above would certainly not make any such judgment. Yet they would tend to say that their writing, though not lacking in insights, is amorphous, their ideas unformalised and unformalisable. They might well agree with Lord Robbins, who is reported to have said of Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that it was a piece of ‘supremely intelligent after-dinner talk’. In any case, they would insist on the global and general character of these theories, and the absence of testable hypotheses to be derived from them.

There might appear to be something inherently unscientific in the designation ‘Marxist social science’. Following Whitehead’s dictum that ‘a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost,’ one could argue that Marxism – the valuable parts of Marxism – should simply merge with the mainstream of social science and lose its identity as a separate current. Indeed, there is much to be said for this view. In the confrontation between Marxist and non-Marxist social theory over the past century, some of the main Marxist tenets have been decisively refuted, while others have been absorbed into the shared framework of all social scientists. If these were the only consequences of that confrontation, there would perhaps be no point in referring to a specifically Marxist social science. I believe, however, that there remain elements of Marxist thought which, while valuable and important, are yet not sufficiently appreciated outside the Marxist camp – and I have to add, not always within that camp either. These elements include the dialectical method, the theory of exploitation, a theory relating class interest to state policy, and what one may refer to as a theory of endogenous belief formation. These do not form a fully coherent theory, but a loosely integrated whole, with much scope for further development.–

Nobody at Home

Jon Elster, 2 June 1983

A few years ago I was flying from Paris to Copenhagen on a day of calm and perfect weather. The flight took me over the sea beyond the coast of Holland, and looking down I was able to see in full detail the landscape below sea level, with its hills and valleys and – astonishingly – a lake: an accumulation of dark-blue water at the bottom of a valley, sharply separated from its lighter surroundings and maintained by some unknown physical process. This lake at the bottom of the sea forcefully evoked the idea of an inner nature of things, normally hidden by an opaque veil and only occasionally discernible by the senses. It has remained with me as a moment of ultra-clear vision, an experience of being absorbed into the world rather than having it represented on a screen of consciousness.


Jon Elster, 16 September 1982

In Anglo-American social science Albert Hirschman occupies a position at once central and peripheral, or at least anomalous. Of his centrality there can be no doubt. As one of three permanent members of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he has a unique vantage-point for gathering and influencing scholars from all over the world. His Strategy for Economic Development (1958) had an immense impact on development economics, by introducing the notions of backward and forward linkages, and by preaching the virtues of unbalanced growth. The short and incisive Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970) was an instant classic of political science no less than of economics. In that book he looked at ‘exit’, i.e. taking one’s business elsewhere, and ‘voice’, i.e. protest against the leadership, as alternative ‘responses to decline in firms, organisations and states’. This way of rephrasing the distinction between economic and political behaviour proved very useful, although the main virtue of the book lay elsewhere. Drawing on an extremely broad range of empirical knowledge, sifted, purified and rearranged by an acute and imaginative analytical mind, it generated a state of almost intolerable intellectual excitement in the reader. For many of us it provided a durable model of what a work in the social sciences should be like: free of jargon, devoid of abstract theorising, wide-ranging in application, yet with an intense analytical focus. Among current practitioners of the social sciences only Thomas Schelling and Amos Tversky come to mind as demonstrating to the same extent Hirschman’s quality of controlled imagination.

Slaves and Citizens

Jon Elster, 3 June 1982

Some fifteen years ago, in the course of reading up the history of technotogy, I came across an article by M.I. Finley, of whom I then knew nothing, on ‘Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World’, reprinted in his essays on Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Looking up my notes, and rereading the article today, I now see that I missed most of the points. Yet the overall impression it made has been confirmed by everything I have since read by Finley. I was astounded and then delighted by the multiple virtues he brought together: above all, the sheer force of argument, but also the compactness of presentation, the simplicity of language, the striking common sense, and the precision with which comparative and theoretical argument was brought to bear on the problem at hand. Of his Classical scholarship I was, and remain, an incompetent judge. Obviously this is of crucial importance in a field in which long familiarity with the sources appears to be a condition for saying anything worthwhile (although anything but a late developer – he received his MA at 17 – Finley published virtually nothing before the age of 40). Yet he can be read with immense profit by the reader who is content to take his scholarship for granted, and who seeks in his work a source of comparisons and counter-examples – the stuff of which generalisations about society are made and unmade.


Jon Elster, 18 March 1982

Up to a fairly recent time it was the case that all good books on Marx were hostile, or at most neutral. Correlatively, all the books that espoused Marx’s views did so in a way that could only dissuade the reader who approached Marx with the same canons of scholarship and argument that he would apply to any other writer. What is called for is a blend of charity and scepticism. When choosing between interpretations of equal textual plausibility, priority should be given to the reading that makes best substantive sense or fits best with what Marx writes elsewhere. Yet charity stops here, for once one has arrived at an idea of what Marx was trying to say, his views should be evaluated according to the usual criteria of consistency, fertility and veracity. To extend charity from interpretation to evaluation was, and still largely is, a pervasive defect in writings on Marx by Marxists. It has led to Ptolemaic Marxism of various kinds, embodied in such phrases as ‘determination in the long run’, ‘relative autonomy’, ‘tendential laws’ and the like. To withhold charity even from interpretation has, of course, been the symmetric error of anti-Marxist writings, often perpetrated by ex-Marxist writers such as Karl Wittfogel.


Jon Elster, 5 November 1981

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France – in the very chair occupied today by Pierre Bourdieu – Raymond Aron coined the word ‘sociodicy’: an apt term for the apologetic tendency of much contemporary social science, a tendency which has a long ancestry, going back to the theodicies of the 17th century. Within the theological tradition two ways of justifying evil emerged: pain and sin, which could be seen either as indispensable conditions for the good of the universe as a whole, or as inevitable by-products of an optimal package solution. The first was that of Leibniz, who suggested that monsters, for instance, had the function of helping us to see the beauty of the normal. The second was that of Malebranche, who poured scorn on the idea that God created monstrous birth defects ‘pour le bénéfice des sages-femmes’, and argued that accidents and mishaps should be understood as the cost God had to pay for the choice of simple and general laws of nature. In both cases, the argument was, of course, intended to explain that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds.

Why bother about politics?

Jon Elster, 5 February 1981

How did the notion arise that political obligation is something more than the unconditional duty of subjects to obey their ruler? And what, in a given situation, are the historically-shaped constraints that set limits to the rational political duty of citizens? Or, in other terms, what are the arguments – historical and contemporary – for seeing political obligation as going beyond blind obedience and yet falling short of the ideal moral imperatives? These are the questions which occupy John Dunn in the essays that make up this book and which give it a coherence greater than that usually achieved in such collections. They range from reflections on and exercises in the history of ideas, through detailed case-studies of African and Asian political systems, to philosophical inquiries into the nature of political theory and political practice.

Irrational Politics

Jon Elster, 21 August 1980

Anglo-American political science is dominated by the image of rational man. Politics is the maximising of something or other: material benefits for the voter, votes for the politician. Politicians competing for the voters’ favour have to think strategically and rationally. They cannot waste effort on lost causes, nor afford to take up positions too far from the centre. Indeed, a famous theorem, which indicates the flavour of much of rational-choice political science, says that parties tend to converge towards the middle of the political spectrum for much the same reason that makes ice-cream vendors converge towards the middle of the beach. Politicians must concentrate their scarce resources to sway the marginal voter, and in doing so they have to anticipate and if possible undercut the competition from other politicians, well knowing that the latter are trying to do the same. The ‘I think that he thinks that I think …’ aspect of politics is formalised by game theory, a branch of rational-choice theory that has become increasingly important in political science. Game theory is uniquely well suited to bring out the complex interdependencies of social life, and to explain many paradoxical phenomena in terms of individual rationality. In The Presidential Election Game, Steven Brams has explained the confrontation between Nixon and Justices Burger and Blackmun over the White House tapes in terms of a strategic conflict, where the actual and rationally predictable outcome was worse for both sides than another available outcome. Such paradoxes can occur because the jointly best outcome is not stable against defectors: i.e. rational players will try to go for something even better and thereby jointly bring about something worse.

Proverbs: Jon Elster

William Ian Miller, 10 August 2000

Suppose that 16 years ago you had written not one but two superlative books. Would you suffer from anxiety of influence with regard to early versions of yourself, as if, to twist Harold Bloom,...

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Roads breed traffic. The M25 motorway round London eased congestion at first, and so tempted more drivers into more journeys. A belief that a good road is empty soon fills it up. Game Theorists...

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Double Brains

P.W. Atkins, 19 May 1988

Anne Harrington’s masterly account of homo duplex is more than just an account of the emergence of our understanding of our own inner dissymmetry. It sets the striving towards comprehension...

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Can Marxism be rescued?

Alan Ryan, 17 September 1987

The relationship between philosophy and Marxism has always been an awkward one. ‘Philosophy stands to the study of the real world in the same relationship as masturbation stands to real...

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Happiness and Joe Higgins

Brian Barry, 20 October 1983

Jon Elster needs, as they say, no introduction to regular readers of the London Review, who will be familiar not only with his name but also with the cast of his mind and the breadth of his...

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Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams, 1 May 1980

There are some pieces of logical or theoretical jargon which are marks of ideological allegiance – intellectual windsocks to display which way the wind is blowing the author. While...

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