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The rise of systems analysis in twentieth century America illustrates the utility of 'rationality' as a legitimising ideology for minimising popular participation in the political process.

Note - this diary is an excerpt from a longer essay published at New Left Project

In early twentieth century America many thinkers perceived and reacted to a shift towards judgement by experts, an apparent realisation of an influential tradition in political thought that has conceived of political judgement as a technical skill. Some, like Walter Lippmann[1], championed “dependence on those who know”[2] as a necessary adaptation to the complexity of modernity. In the “epoch of technology” who better to judge than technicians?[3] Others were fearful that increases in the authority of technical experts came at the expense of democratic accountability. But fears, and enthusiasms, about “the expert... replacing the politician”[4] were exaggerated. Social scientists at this time tended to see themselves as “service intellectuals” – “on tap, not on top”[5] – and lacked the power to usurp traditional political and business elites.

But if experts did not seize decisionmaking control from traditional elites, ‘expertise’ and ‘rationality’ did become important justifications for innovations in the process of political decisionmaking the effect of which was to further marginalise the public. Experts did not ultimately hold power, but the “citadel of expertise”[6] often functioned to advance the interests of and provide cover for those who did. Claiming specialist knowledge to add authority to interested judgement was not a new tactic.[7] But following WWII, there arose in America something quite different: an attempt to change the structures of decisionmaking itself – the processes by which political judgement was formed – along ‘rational’ lines. This conceptualized political judgement not as a product of democratic deliberation, the exercise of human reason, or gut intuition, but as a “machine product”.[8]

This article will trace the rise of these decision technologies to their adoption by the U.S. federal government. It will argue that attempts to reorganise decisionmaking processes, ostensibly to achieve ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ political judgement, depoliticized controversial issues by disguising them as mere technical problems, and will focus in particular on their role in reinforcing hierarchy. In short, it will examine ‘rational political judgement’ as an antidemocratic managerial device. It will conclude with an attempt to draw, from this case study, some necessarily tentative general conclusions about the problems of conceptualizing political judgement as a ‘skill’ or a ‘science’.

Rational decision technologies were forged in the closed world of computer simulations and operations research developed during WWII and expanded during the Cold War. They were principally developed at RAND, the military think-tank and “quintessential Cold War institution”.[9] Technologies it pioneered in the context of military strategy developed into rational choice theory, a new ‘science of choice’ that used a few basic axioms to deductively predict behaviour. Rational choice theory was a deeply ideological project. If RANDites saw themselves as defenders of Western democracy against “a totalitarian threat”,[10] Amadae shows that the ‘democracy’ they were defending was redefined as “individualistic competition that resembles market interactions predicated on self-interest”.[11] The effect was to re-ground capitalist democracy “in a scientific, [apparently] nonnormative fashion”, in opposition to both “communism” and “ideal democracy”.[12] Amadae is correct to situate the rational choice project in the context of a Cold War understood as an “internal U.S. struggle” over “the manufacture of the ‘Cold War’ itself” – that is, as a construction that functioned to legitimise claims to authority and undermine political claims by the population.[13] But then why frame it as a rationalisation for capitalist democracy? This confusion aside, Amadae’s analysis of the ideological function of rational choice theory is useful for analysing RAND’s other major contribution to the praxis of decisionmaking in America: systems analysis.

Institutionalising ‘Scientific’ Political Judgement

Systems analysis was RAND’s signature product, the technology on which it based its “mystique”.[14] A “merger of quantitative methods and rules of thumb”[15], it was designed to enable planners to achieve greater precision when making decisions in conditions of uncertainty. Systems analysis possessed an aura of scientific objectivity, assiduously cultivated, which allowed RAND to portray itself as a “neutral and objective body” that “produced expert policy advice” and obviated the need for “political factions” in policymaking.[16]

The application of systems analysis to political decisionmaking was a natural one – like military planners, politicians must make judgements in situations of great uncertainty. But systems analysis was not simply about providing data to politicians. A key characteristic of systems analysis was that “the objectives are either not known or are subject to change”.[17] Systems analysis in the form that was actually implemented in the federal government – called ‘planning-programming-budgeting’ (PPB) – represented a major change in the processes of decisionmaking. It attempted to “break out” of the “confines” of traditional policy formation[18], with its emphasis on compromise between competing interest groups, purportedly in the service of “rational”, “objective” policy judgement.

These two main arguments for the application of PPB to political decisionmaking – that it was rational, and that it was objective – tended to go together. There was a strong aesthetic quality to these claims[19]: where politics was grubby and “sloppy”[20], PPB was clean, sharp and decisive, concerned only with maximising utility. Unlike politicians and representatives of special interests, PPB was “a neutral tool”[21] and technical experts were “value free”.[22] “Actual data” and “scientific” rationality would replace “seat-of-pants judgement” and “political intuition”.[23] Rational management meant an end to “ideology” and a triumph of rationality over the “disease of politics”.[24]

Systems analysis itself had no fixed definition, and it was even, as E.S. Quade, the author of RAND’s lectures on the topic, conceded, “difficult to decide which studies should be called good.”[25] Critics like Aaron Wildavsky and Ida Hoos observed that it used greatly simplified models and worked from assumptions that were themselves “shot through with political and social value choices”.[26] For example, ‘efficiency’ is itself far from “ethics-free”[27], and nor is the decision to place its attainment above other goals. Some defence intellectuals and systems analysts acknowledged as much, and were realistic about rational decision technology’s role an aid to political judgement.[28] But as systems analysis and PPB became increasingly influential, caution gave way to hubris.[29]

The Political Economy of ‘Objectivity’

But for all its self-proclaimed rationality and single-minded focus on efficient results, the extraordinary rise of PPB cannot be explained by its record of practical success. The major early systems studies at RAND were failures.[30] Even as the technology developed RAND systems studies were “highly problematic”, with analysts forced to make “simplifying assumptions” that “seemed ridiculous to those who had actually fought a war”.[31] The results of PPB and systems analysis in the Department of Defense were “dubious at best”, leading to an overreliance on “simplified models” that “were lent illusory precision by their quantitative bases”.[32] Despite this, and despite the fact that no attempts were made to analyse the efficacy of either PPB or systems analysis for making good judgements, systems analysts continued to enjoy “profound” influence in the Johnson administration[33], which in 1965 rolled PPB out across the federal government. Even then, notwithstanding the fact that “applications of military innovations and expertise to urban problems rarely served as sources of solutions”[34], they were subsequently exported to the international stage via the World Bank.[35] If systems analysis and PPB did not have stellar records of practical success, what explains their influence?

To answer this, it is worth recalling Otto Mayr’s observation that where a technological innovation “matches and reinforces the prevailing conception of order” it will be “received more warmly, regardless of its technical merits”.[36] The rise of systems analysis and PPB did reflect their success – not in improving political judgement, but in furthering the interests of powerful sectors of American society and securing elite control against popular participation. The first federal department to adopt PPB was the Department of Defense. It is worth briefly looking at how that came to be, for it illustrates how, for all its claims to ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’, rational decision technology became influential by collaborating with powerful interests.

PPB was imported into the Pentagon on the back of organised misrepresentation and political opportunism. A 1951 RAND study, considered “the prototypical systems analysis study”, argued that the U.S. had to possess enough nuclear weapons to withstand a surprise USSR strike on all U.S. bases simultaneously and still be able to inflict equal damage in response.[37] President Eisenhower dismissed the proposal on the grounds that the likelihood of such an attack was almost nil, but defence intellectuals were persistent. In 1957 a committee chaired by H.R. Gaither, chairman of the board for both RAND and the Ford Foundation, authored a report identifying a potentially fatal “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The report used “wildly speculative” estimates of Soviet capability to call for a massive increase in defence spending and a “radical re-organisation” of the Pentagon along rational decision management lines.[38] There was no ‘missile gap’, but it was a useful fiction, keeping RAND relevant in a time of decreased international tension and justifying huge government subsidies to high-technology industry.[39] The Gaither Report was backed by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of over a hundred of America’s largest corporations that had significant “overlap of membership” with the Gaither Committee. It claimed to provide “objective, expert advice” on policy.[40] The Report was also championed by the Democratic Party – Kennedy used the ‘missile gap’ as a weapon to attack Eisenhower, and this played a significant role in his election triumph.[41] Kennedy’s victory was shared by defence intellectuals, who found themselves occupying important roles in the Department of Defense under Robert McNamara. In power, despite readily conceding that the ‘missile gap’ had been a fiction, they presided over an “unprecedented arms buildup” and a doubling of the defence budget.[42]

Amadae takes this, and the subsequent rationalisation of decisionmaking in the Pentagon through the implementation of PPB, as evidence of a “shift in the principle grounding legitimate authority” to one “anchored in claims of scientific rigor and objective calculations.” Gaither, who had authored a report for the Ford Foundation in 1948 outlining his technocratic vision for policymaking, had partially realised his goals: in the Pentagon, at least, “difficult questions of policy” were now to be decided “objectively” by “a professional elite”.[43] But the evidence Amadae adduces suggests that rational management’s rise to the Pentagon illustrates not Gaither’s vision but Otto Mayr’s dictum. That defence intellectuals were able to don the mantle of objectivity did lend their conclusions credibility, and within the Pentagon the appeal to quantitative data and the ‘scientific’ character of rational decisionmaking did afford McNamara an “epistemic edge”[44] in his battles with military brass. But if defence intellectuals had instead used systems analysis to call for a dismantling of the military-industrial complex – if, that is, rational decisionmaking had not “[matched] and [reinforced] the prevailing conception of order” – then it would have surely remained a marginal phenomenon. One cannot imagine that political and business elites were so committed to the principle of scientific objectivity that they would have willingly undermined their own interests simply on that basis. Look, after all, at what happens when business interests and the conclusions of the natural sciences collide.[45] Rather, what rational decision technology offered powerful interests was ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ cover, and thus increased legitimacy, for the pursuit of their objectives.[46]

On careful examination, then, the rise of systems analysis reveals not a triumph of ‘objective’ technologies of political judgement, but the political utility of ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality’ as rhetorical and managerial devices to further traditional political and economic interests. This function can also be seen in the implications systems analysis and PPB had for democratic practice, for rational decision technologies were “inseparable from the politics of control”.[47]

End of excerpt - read the whole thing at New Left Project


[1] See his ‘Public Opinion’ (1922) and ‘Drift and Mastery’ (1914).

[2] John C. Merriam, cit. Hollinger, David A. Science, Jews and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996):89.

[3] Gen. de Gaulle, cit. Hecht, Gabrielle. "Planning a Technological Nation: Systems Theory and the Politics of National Identity in Postwar France." Systems, Experts, and Computers: the Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and after. Ed. Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas Parke Hughes (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000):142. Regrettably de Gaulle did not elaborate on the differences between his “epoch of technology” and the “Age of Machinery” proclaimed by Thomas Carlyle more than a century earlier. (cit. Agar, Jon. The Government Machine: a Revolutionary History of the Computer (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003):37) .

[4] writer Andre Siegfried, cit. Hecht:136.

[5] Charles Merriam, cit. Smith, Mark C. Social Science in the Crucible: American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-41 (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994):27.

[6] cit. Fischer, Frank. Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990):11.

[7] Hont, Istvan. Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2005):55.

[8] Unspecified U.S. senator, cit. Amadae, S. M. Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: the Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003):68.

[9] Amadae:11.

[10] Hounshell, David A. "The Medium Is the Message, or How Context Matters." Systems, Experts, and Computers: the Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and after. Ed. Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000):258.

[11] Amadae:22.

[12] Amadae:159.

[13] For analysis of the Cold War as a device for domestic “population control” cf. Chomsky, Noam. World Orders, Old and New (London: Pluto, 1997); Cumings, Bruce. "The Wicked Witch of the West Is Dead. Long Live the Wicked Witch of the East." The End of the Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications. Ed. Michael J. Hogan. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1992); Steel, Ronald. "The End and the Beginning." In ibid. Amadae glosses increased popular participation as a “serious internal threat” (22) posed by “Marxism” (a “threat” to who, she doesn’t specify).

[14] Hounshell:255.

[15] Wildavsky, Aaron. "The Political Economy of Efficiency: Cost-Benefit Analysis, Systems Analysis, and Program Budgeting." Public Administration Review 26.4 (1996):301.

[16] Amadae:39.

[17] cit. Wildavsky:299.

[18] Wildavsky:302.

[19] Wildavsky:308.

[20] Jardini, David R. "Out of the Blue Yonder: The Transfer of Systems Thinking from the Pentagon to the Great Society." Systems, Experts, and Computers: the Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and after. Ed. Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P.. Hughes. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000):311.

[21] Prominent RANDite and defence intellectual Melvin Anshen, cit. Wildavsky:308.

[22] Hughes, Agatha C., and Thomas C. Hughes. Introduction. Systems, Experts, and Computers: the Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and after. Ed. Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000):9.

[23] Robert Wood, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, cit. Light, Jennifer S. From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003):52.

[24] cit. Hecht:139, 140.

[25] cit. Wildavsky:298.

[26] Wildavsky:294.

[27] Aldred, Jonathan. The Skeptical Economist: Revealing the Ethics Inside Economics (London: Earthscan, 2009):5.

[28] John Raser, cit. Light:44.

[29] Light:45, 66.

[30] Amadae:41.

[31] Hounshell:255.

[32] Amadae:342.

[33] Bornet, Vaughn D. The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 1983):135.

[34] Light:8.

[35] Amadae:75.

[36] cit. Agar:21.

[37] Amadae:44.

[38] Amadae:48.

[39] In 1949, following the Soviet atomic detonation, the assistant director of RAND privately averred that the “world situation” was such that it may require “some deception by us of our own population” – adding that “the inventive aspects of how to go about this are rather fascinating.” (cit. Jardini:311) An observation rendered more striking by his institution’s later role in pushing the ‘missile gap’ myth.

[40] Amadae:55-6; cf. Merewitz, Leonard, and Stephen H. Sosnick. The Budget's New Clothes: A Critique of Planning-Programming-Budgeting and Benefit-Cost Analysis (Chicago: Markham Pub., 1971):9.

[41] This is the background to Eisenhower’s famous warning against the rise of a “military-industrial complex” and domination by a “scientific technological elite”. (cit. Amadae:57)

[42] Amadae:58-9.

[43] Amadae:59-60.

[44] Amadae:64.

[45] Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010); Beder, Sharon. Global Spin: the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Devon, UK: Green, 2002).

[46] It is therefore unsurprising that the new ‘rational’ civilian management in the Pentagon turned out to be “tied more closely to the business community’s interests than to military imperatives.” (Amadae:62)

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Comment Preferences

  •  A few of us (5+ / 0-)

    (a very very few apparently) get the significance of the de-democratizing of democracy that was imposed on American (and other developed capitalist) society by the credentialized elites in the course of the 20th century, and continues to gather momentum if only by inertia.   As your interim conclusion here notes, “inseparable from the politics of control”.  

    Hofstadter's anti-populist (i.e., elitist) screeds were the political-philosophical counterpart used to discredit popular and participatory models of democracy that might challenge elite absolutism.  It is notable that the beginning of the decline of liberalism in the American body politic is almost simultaneous with the embrace of Hofstadterism by the liberal elites.

    "Tu vida es ahora" ~graffiti in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, May, 2011.

    by ActivistGuy on Wed Jul 13, 2011 at 02:09:42 PM PDT

  •  Random thoughts... (3+ / 0-)

    The value of rational-"ism" is contingent on vision and input.

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    We seem to both be losing our ability to discern garbage, and yet increasingly rely on it as a policy guide.


    I wish I could think in words instead of analogies and/or anecdotes, but from this part of your piece:

    Amadae takes this, and the subsequent rationalisation of decisionmaking in the Pentagon through the implementation of PPB, as evidence of a “shift in the principle grounding legitimate authority” to one “anchored in claims of scientific rigor and objective calculations.”

    We get the Air France Flt 447 crash, where pilot in command vision ("the principle grounding authority" - don't fly into the storm) was overridden by the numbers ("claims of scientific rigor and objective calculations" - it's acceptable to fly into the storm).  The result was nobody was on the outside of the "system" screaming that something was wrong.  Splash.

    Someone's always got to be outside the system as a vision/sanity check.  That is completely possible in a political or business setting.


    Another aerospace analogy:  One of my mentors used to get peeved that junior engineers knew how to analyze, say, torque using software, but they didn't actually know the systemic effects of torque on real bodies in motion.  Therefore they couldn't know its effect on a complex system and couldn't assess the implications of the software analyses.  They become conduits.  Become a really good conduit, you get promoted and are ultimately tasked with providing the input vision.  The engineering becomes rooted in a self-reinforcing non-real world based loop.

    Transpose that process to politics and you have a painless (no understandable "torque" effect affecting policy) housing "crisis."  

    I'm glad you all at NLP do what you do.  You and a few scattered others are sounding the alarm and describing the real world processes that are the cause for alarm.


    Juries should be able to ask questions during trial, but apparently aren't judged sufficiently capable of rationality to do so - by whomever judges these things.


    Thanks for the diary.  Fascinating subject.  Hotlisted for future reading.

    Do you think there's something changeable about our increasing reliance on this form of elite-ism?

    (And do I need to say that Terry Gilliam nailed it in Munchausen with the Jonathan Pryce character?)  :)


    "Dega dega dega dega. Break up the concrete..." The Pretenders

    by Terra Mystica on Wed Jul 13, 2011 at 05:16:38 PM PDT

    •  Thanks Terra (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Terra Mystica, sofia

      lots in this comment, most of which I'm not qualified to talk about. But I'll reply properly tomorrow.

      •  Yeah, I was just struck by the parallels in what I (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        sofia, heathlander

        know.  I didn't mean to be so abstract or removed from what you are trying to say.  I hope I didn't stray too far OT.

        What you describe in detail, politically, seems to me to be a pervasive and/or universal phenomenon.  

        It's possible, that in an era of $T defense budgets, the military/rational management style (you mention McNamara) of determining what's important and measuring results gets firehosed out into society and transforms it.  Because quantifiable results become an absolute requirement, the qualitative/soft objectives are shunted.  

        What I see in my work is that this leads to zero risk taking because you can't quantify new or better very easily.  This leads to very few "genetic" leaps needed for system evolution. In politics, societal evolution.  "New" becomes "What we have quantified in the past - but those people retired."  Safe.  Self-perpetuating.  A systemic hardening of the social arteries.

        D'oh!  Ruminatin' again, but this is fascinating and relevant.  What you describe may be the dynamic that is the immovable political object that's soon coming up against the irresistible political force of unmet popular needs.

        "Dega dega dega dega. Break up the concrete..." The Pretenders

        by Terra Mystica on Wed Jul 13, 2011 at 10:34:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  "Garbage in, garbage out." (0+ / 0-)

      This is true. But I think the main problem in this regard comes from hubris about what the models can do. Like I said in the diary, many advocates and practitioners of rational decisionmaking technology were realistic about its role as an aid to judgement, rather than as a sole basis for it. But many weren't, and those were the ones who became increasingly influential, largely for, as I suggested, political reasons.

      A related problem concerns not just the inevitably limited character of the input data, but the failure to see that interpretation of the data invariably presupposes certain value judgments - it is rarely, in other words, "objective".

      "Do you think there's something changeable about our increasing reliance on this form of elite-ism?"

      I'm not sure how much it is still increasing - my research stopped at around the 1970s, so I'm not sure what has happened since then. But the rhetorical manoeuvre that seeks to depoliticise controversial issues or decisions by cloaking them in the language of a technical science is clearly still pervasive, most obviously in the discourse of economics (the fact that the ruling assumptions of that discourse were exposed as deeply flawed by the financial crisis hasn't really affected their status as quasi-scientific 'Laws', which again tesitifies to Otto Mayr's dictum).

      •  The book "Freakonomics" goes into this in an (0+ / 0-)

        oblique sort of way.  The authors (2005) showed that data is commonly selected to show causality to make political points, when in fact the causal link is minimal or non-existent.  I don't agree entirely with Levitt's categorical-ness about that, but he makes great points and backs them up (mostly, imho).

        The case that sticks out in memory is the Clinton claim that community policing caused a reduction in crime.  Levitt shows other seemingly (in the prevailing political narrative) unrelated events that were more significant factors.

        Interesting book.  It gives an alternative filter for viewing "rational" politics.


        Just curious, but why are you interested in this to this degree?  It seems pretty arcane (if that's the right word)...  :)

        Sorry to take so long to get back.  I got sidetracked.

        "Dega dega dega dega. Break up the concrete..." The Pretenders

        by Terra Mystica on Sun Jul 17, 2011 at 06:15:29 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Another interesting aspect of rationalism is that (0+ / 0-)

        it also serves as an obscuring tool as well as a defining tool.  Freakonomics suggests this, and what I call "political cause and effect" but what actually has a latin name, post hoc ergo propter hoc, is powerfully enabled by the appeal to rationalism in politics.  Elites can say anything and because the "data" supplants common sense, no one without access to the "data" can counter it (and of course that data is guarded like gold [security state] and outside data lacks "accreditation" or "reliability.").

        It used to be that elites just dictated and used force to follow up.  That mostly doesn't work anymore.  So this is the tool of choice.

        Just my thoughts...

        Again, great diary.  Fascinating subject.  Still have to go through the footnotes.

        "Dega dega dega dega. Break up the concrete..." The Pretenders

        by Terra Mystica on Sun Jul 17, 2011 at 06:33:35 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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