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Herbert Simon
: Administration & Society, Feb95, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p464, 24p
Dennard, Linda F.
California State University-Hayward
Decision making, as a form of Darwinism, has reduced our sense of what it means to be a human being to the practical art of adaptation to a hostile environment. In reality, however, the practicality of decision making to the survival of the species or the American culture is marginal. For Herbert Simon to be able to prescribe administrative behavior, which is essentially problem solving, he must also reduce the heroic nature of human beings to the dreary and uninspiring task of satisficing. Satisficing does not draw on the human capacity for proactive choice and purposeful change. Simon bases his theories on an incomplete view of evolution-especially human evolution. Simon's neo-Darwinism is illustrated and then compared with emerging views on the nature of evolution, the brain, and the human enterprise. The conclusion drawn here is that whether or not we have hounded rationality is really a matter of the choice we make about human purpose.
Modern administrative consciousness has been described by C. Wright Mills as the bureaucratic ethos--an exclusionary network of ideas and action that seems to operate in spite of citizens, instead of with them (1978, pp. 101 - 118). This ethos is, at least in part, the outcome of an intellectual crisis among those who prescribe administrative reform; a crisis energized by the attempts of economists like Herbert Simon to free the public arena of the conflict that comes from human influences. Indeed, neo-Darwinists, like Simon, enamored of skills, techniques, tasks, and programs, have made light of the very human need for idealism and aspiration--emotional dispositions that could lead to a more humane world than that which rational economics can conceptually muster.
Human orientations, and the values that reflect them, have been allowed into administrative discourse only to the extent that they have fed the basic adversarial premises of economics. (Boggs, 1993, p. 77; Osborne & Gaebler, 1992) Customer, as the current economic vernacular for citizen, for example, assigns the public a manageable bit part in government as the demanding and critical patron of administrative services. Yet such an adversarial role for citizens is not likely to produce a more democratic government. It is just as likely to reinforce public administration's abiding attitude that it must adapt to and survive the hostile environment of politics--an attitude that is a long way from democratic.
The reduction of democratic public administration to customer relations is one manifestation of government's almost unconditional embrace of the social Darwinism of economic theory. Yet after all, it is with the unhappy principles of Darwin (1909; Schubert, 1989) that Herbert Simon helped create a profoundly sullen and negative identity for public administration--as the necessary but evil twin of democracy. Although many new theories exist that rival Simon's epistemology, the effect of his rational man on the administrative consciousness remains. This is so because the presumptions of natural selection, which are inherent in his methods, reinforce the continuing Madisonian disposition of public administration, which sees itself as a detached mediator of conflict among inequitable and warring factions that threaten the social order (Bruce, 1989; Ford, 1992; Mills, 1978; Nelson, 1982; Wolin, 1960).
Indeed, the disheartening legacy of interest-group liberalism seems to suggest that perhaps social Darwinism is an accurate description of American political life. Maybe politics is just the recreation of the natural struggle for supremacy translated into the pedestrian and economically sanctioned practice of the marketing of political ideas (Schubert, 1989; Spencer, 1967). Yet, if this is indeed political reality, it may be so because it is actively reinforced by the mediation of government agencies operating according to rules of administrative behavior like Simon's and not because it is an immutable reality per se.
For example, public agencies often structure encounters with citizens so that the attendant dialogue is organized by the demands of bureaucratic procedure--this, rather than public encounters being a free exchange of ideas. In so doing, agencies reinforce both predictable constituent behavior and their own power base by teaching people the common "rules of their game" (Harmon, 1981; Moe, 1989; Nelson, 1982). It appears that the administration is behaving equitably while also maintaining system stability because everyone is operating by the same rule book. Indeed, these chronic adaptations to environmental demands often pass for system accountability and responsiveness.
Yet, the bureaucracy is not truly changing by simply adapting to these demands from the premises of its own bureaucratic ethic. But then, change does not really appear to be the goal of bureaucratic adaptation. Instead, administrative response can as often be understood as the attempt to control the apparent chaos of democratic complexity. It does this by relating all political action to the common gameboard of decision-making procedure as it serves the bureaucracy's need to comply with the political agendas of the executive branch (Seidman & Gilmour, 1986). Bureaucracy seems to feel compelled to adapt to democratic life in this way because of the underlying presumption that it must reduce the conflict or risk system disequilibrium; this, at the same time it is reinforcing the outdated Hobbesian belief that interests have nothing in common to begin with, which might make their conflict productive (Rohr, 1978; Wolin, 1960).
Yet, this concern for order is not necessarily a consciously evil intent of individual bureaucrats, or even of economists like Simon. It seems rather to be the underlying ontological presumption that government, as Hobbes prescribed, is responsible for controlling the excesses of human behavior and that the decision-making model helps create the needed conditions of prediction and control by which equilibrium is created and maintained (Melossi, 1992, Wolin, 1960). One might fairly say that this attitude is as much a sense of responsibility as it is a fondness for the power such strategic adaptability seems to grant public institutions.
Unfortunately such presumptions, however well intended, deny the ever present potential that citizens have the ability and the capacity to understand each other, love each other, and move beyond the dismal horizons of social Darwinism. Indeed, if America cannot seem to overcome its differences, accept diversity, or allay its violence, it seems due, at least in part, to rational administrative practices that cast citizens as potential villains--environmental threats that must be rationally controlled for their own good.
Bureaucratic neo-Darwinism is marked by several distinctive and characteristically undemocratic traits associated in particular with Simon's models for administrative action: (a) a need to distance administrative action from human emotion and human relationship, (b) a distrust in ways of knowing other than rational decision making, (c) a disposition toward isolation from citizens and other "nonexperts," (d) a belief that knowledge is finite and can be applied instrumentally through strategic, homogenized plans in a programmed eradication of problems, and (e) a distrust of the political process. These overlapping characteristics may also be summarized by stating that Darwinistic public administration is primarily concerned with the maintenance of social equilibrium, and it does this by application of rational formulas for conflict management through social programs (Wolin, 1960). It is this desire to maintain stability in the face of human strife and competition that seems to be best served by the calculated methods of decision making (Simon, 1992, pp. 85-88). It is also this desire for control that appears to put bureaucracy at odds with democracy (Hummel, 1987). Bureaucratic neo-Darwinism then can be defined as the intertwining of the process of decision making with the tenets of natural selection and survival of the fittest. What emerges is the social justification for a methodology that isolates individual actions from the seemingly dangerous world of political life.
Neo-Darwinism, as a modern state of bureaucratic consciousness, is rooted in a particular Western view of the evolution of the mind. The conventional understanding of evolution often equates the mind with the brain and, in particular, with the theorizing neo-cortex (Simon, 1992, pp. 272-273). The body is made to be a prior evolution to the more recent and therefore more superior neo-cortex in this understanding (Olstein & Sobel, 1987, pp. 55-70). For example, the Darwinian concept of natural selection made it appear to social theorists, like Simon, that the neo-cortex evolved away from, not with, the rest of the body and now exists as an isolated and defensive artifact of human history. The neo-cortex is then used to wage a battle with those human forces that would undermine the realities that it creates in its isolation (Simon, 1992, p. 273).
By analogy, then, the bureaucratic ethos might also be described, as anthropologist J. T. Fraser does, as the uncontrolled growth of the brain--the linear accumulation of self-affirming ideas caused by the reinforcement of the reductive and isolated tendencies of the neo-cortex (1990, pp. 235-282). Indeed, the now ingrained practice of public decision making depends, almost exclusively, on the rationalizing tendencies of the neo-cortex to create and then re-create narrow social realities based on lifeless linear models stored in memory as "expertise." (Simon, 1982, 1992). Neo-Darwinism not only reinforces the cortex's ability to theorize based on selective memory in this manner, it also creates the philosophic rationale whereby the neo-cortex can morally exclude all other brain functions in the name of survival of the species--particularly those associated with emotions, sensations, and our ability to imagine other potentialities. Indeed, the human species and its continued evolution is reduced by this reasoning to what the neo-cortex can do (Fraser, 1990, p. 235).
This linear model of the brain was not new with Simon, of course, but instead it is encompassed by the breadth of Western philosophical tradition. The adversarial relationship of human beings and the natural world, first defined by Plato for example, made it appear that the evolutions prior to rationality were to be left behind as vestiges of a chaotic nature or, at a minimum, controlled for their defects by the new evolutionary state. As a result those prerational processes associated with the body--sense and emotions--have most often been viewed as problematic and often expendable (Hatub, 1990; Taylor, 1989). Over time, through the influences of Descartes and his inheritors, the rejection of emotions and senses became a tradition of the emerging modern consciousness; thus human interactions--especially those related to politics and shared community--became suspect because of their dependence on emotive and often conflicted human relationships (Merchant, 1980).
Ironically, Darwin's evolutionary theory was initially an important step toward reintegration of the mind and body, which had been conceptually torn apart in the work of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others. Darwin introduced the idea that the brain was a product of an evolutionary process of development; it was not simply a new brain function added to the human machinery at some arbitrary point in time. Rather, the higher functions of the mind were derivative of the so-called lower functions, including most specifically the senses (Darwin, 1909; Ho & Fox, 1986). However, because of the historical backdrop to Darwin's work, which included the competitive tenets of social contract theory, as well as the predictions of social strife in the population growth studies of Malthus, natural selection (as the determinant of inferior and superior behavior) was an idea that suited the times (Ho & Fox, 1986; Ho & Saunders, 1984). As a result, the new consciousness of the neo-cortex was seen as a movement to a superior state that marked a victory over the emotive limbic system (Ho & Fox, 1986; Olstein & Sobel, 1987, pp. 35-55). Human consciousness, then, became a symbol of the competitive isolation of individuals that seemed to mark the times--the tool by which we survived each other.
This narrow understanding of the mind as the neo-cortex--a tool for instrumentally reducing complexity and fending off a hostile environment--has had a limiting effect on public administration's ability to perceive that the democratic components of choice making and diversity are positive and practical elements of life in a naturally complex world. Instead, rational public administration, as the expert "brain" of the social system, has often perceived itself as the metaphorical guardian against such an influx of potentialities generated in the sensory and emotional relationships of an individual (Bruce, 1989, pp. 197-200). The effect has been that aspirational dialogue about the future of the human condition has been replaced by myopic, fragmented, and often isolated problem solving (Long, 1962; O'Toole, 1984, pp. 141-167). For example, the liberal tradition, which emerged most clearly in the new public administration of the 1970s, approached social issues as opportunities to even the score among competitive and unequal interests through strategic problem solving (Radin & Cooper, 1989; Marini, 1971). Even Simon portrays himself as a liberal humanist concerned with righting social wrongs (1992). Yet, what produced the social fragmentation of interest-group liberalism was not the humane desire to help fellow citizens. It was perhaps more that the empowerment movements of that era promoted strategic competition as the regulator of economic and social relationships (Rawls, 1971; Rosenbloom, 1993; Sullivan, 1982). In this manner, the Darwinistic tendencies of economics that produced the inequalities were simply reinforced. Individuals still had to muster the political and economic strength to beat out the competition in the policy arena. Nothing seemed to exist that would free public administration of its felt need to manage conflict. In fact, through the methodologies of social theorists like Simon, government found ways to rationally manage social inequalities rather than engage in the creation of a culture that could exceed those inequalities (Piven, 1993).
Ironically perhaps, Simon's own portrait of neo-Darwinism serves as a frame of reference for the democratic analysis of bureaucratic systems--one that helps identify the nature of the American administrative state's struggle to define itself in democratic terms. It perhaps even suggests a way out of the mire of the bureaucratic ethos. This particular identity is described best in the personal accounts of Simon's autobiography, Models of My Life (1992). There is perhaps no other source from which a sense of the particular consciousness of this architect of modern thought can be so clearly extracted.
A presumption exists in Simon's (1992)[1] work that the evolution of the neo-cortex may mark the end of human involvement in the natural process of evolution--at least evolution that has some connection to the body (p. 366). This finality of the human evolutionary process appears to be necessary to affect the conditions of control and management prescribed by Simon's methodology. His models create and continuously reaffirm a certain reality that appears to reduce conflict and improve efficiency. This artificial reality is not renewed with interaction in the environment but rather is reinforced at a given, presumably predictable and controllable historical point. That is to say, the risks to system equilibrium and control--inherent particularly in emotive human relationships--are minimized by having a preconceived principle like bureaucratic procedure to which all environmental conditions are related (Newell & Simon, 1972; Simon, 1982).
For example, Simon's travel theorem (1992, pp. 306, 308, 312, 313) offers a practical disposition for people wanting to conduct efficient business trips. It begins from the reductive premise that there is not much new in the world, at least not much that cannot be more efficiently learned through the reading of authoritative texts. By his own account, Simon's travels are structured by the understandings acquired through reading books, books that for him carry more legitimacy and more promise of certainty than lived experience (pp. 306, 307).
Simon went to China in 1989 as a management consultant, for example, and was thrown into the dramatic events of Tiananmen Square. Although Simon confesses to being moved by this democratic "incident," he chooses not to connect those feelings in any way to the purposes of his trip to China. The passions he encounters exist as extraneous accidents to the purposes of his information gathering journey. They are interesting, perhaps historically significant, and a source of sentimentality, but are not especially useful (p. 313). In this manner Simon allocates portions of the human experience to certain accidental categories--meaning that some things can be said to be unrelated to others.
The China trip is only one of the many trips that Simon describes in hi s autobiography. Each trip seems to confirm his theory that little of value is acquired when one travels on short business trips. The Taj Mahal by moonlight, for example, is a cliche, according to Simon, who relates what he sees and feels first to what he has read and thereby avoids the direct experience of the phenomena that may distort his original premise (p.308). In this way, each encounter is only an affirmation of the original idea, not an engagement of the moment. Further, the experience--as a flat arrangement of facts, structure, color, and smell--can likely be replicated elsewhere given the same materials (p. 308). The experience has no intrinsic value, only a kind of functionality connected to the significance it has been given in literature or history--it is only information, not knowledge. As Simon explains:
Anyone who espouses the travel theorem becomes the target of constant gibes if he traveled or plans to travel anywhere. One way to defend against such gibes is to plan your travel itineraries in such a way as to guarantee that you will not learn anything new. Our first trip to Europe in the summer of 1965, will provide an example. We resolved that we would not see anything on the trip that we did not know better already from books and pictures. . . . We took as our targets Paul Cezanne and Marice Utrillo among painters . . . Coming out of Switzerland we followed the route of Napoleon (known from history books) down to Aix-en-Provence . . . We spent our days visiting every spot we could find where Cezanne had stood when he painted Mont Ste. Victoire. Not only did we find the sites, but it was easy to determine within three feet exactly where Cezanne's easel had stood. And when we stood on those spots, the mountain looked exactly as it had on Cezanne's glowing canvasses: the literalness if his landscapes is almost beyond belief. We learned nothing new; we had already seen the paintings, (p. 309)
Simon does not say whether or not it was thrilling to stand at the spot where the painter he admired had stood. It was, perhaps, but the point to be made here is that the thrill was unrelated to the experience of the mountain. Instead, the mountain graciously reinforced Simon's preconception about it, a preconception that had been created by Cezanne's paintings and the interpretations of those paintings by historians and other artists. The mountain itself is only a reflection of what Simon imagines it to be. In fact, Simon quotes Oscar Wilde in this context, "Where were the fogs of London before Turner painted them? Nature as usual," Simon adds in a footnote, "imitating art" (p. 309).
The direct experience, however, is more than just extraneous and irrelevant to the information-gathering process; it also seems to be problematic. For example, Simon cautions against the distortions of peasants speaking the native language and conveying their versions of culture. Simon seems to imply that not only can human experience be segregated and prioritized, but that one can, and indeed must, also rank people--in a very undemocratic manner--by reason of their recognized expertise. Responding to an implied question that bilinguals in a foreign country might help the traveler with the more subtle nuances of culture, Simon remarks:
But local bilinguals can tell you about them, can't they? Yes indeed, but so can books. And with books you can exercise some quality control over the information. You can make sure that their authors are qualified as experts and interpreters of the language . . . If you are unsure how to make up such reading lists, librarians are always glad to help. (p. 308)
Simon's work certainly recognizes the existence of contingencies. Not everything can be planned for, but one is more prepared for such "accidents" if one already has an authoritative framework from which to interpret them. The accidents themselves exist only as they can be related to the already conceived framework. Traveling then becomes the process of bringing cultural contingencies in line with the already existing "objective" point of reference--one created and bounded by prior factual interpretations existing in books and the opinions of recognized experts.
For Simon to have learned anything new from his near adventure in Tiananmen Square, for example, he would have had to feel that change occurs in relationship with an event or a person that cannot always be anticipated or controlled. That is, he would have had to see the struggle for democracy in China as being part of his own human system of interrelationship and interdependence, rather than simply as another fact of history to be recorded. Although Simon confesses a feeling of "great sadness" about the events in China, the feeling does not carry with it a clear connection between the purposes of his trip and the historic drama he witnessed. He could declare, despite the sadness, that on his trip to China, he still had learned nothing new (p. 355). It is a similar attitude of detachment that is perhaps at the basis of the complaints about public administration--that it has no real feel for the positive dynamics of democratic process. Rather, by categorizing and analyzing the behavior of individuals through programs and planning, it exhibits the more defensive feeling of fear or anxiety about the disequilibrium such dynamics seem to cause (Bruce, 1989; Simon, p. 271).
Despite their obvious incongruence with democratic ideals, however, Simon's prescriptions for the rational man have the power of appearing sensible and observable. This is perhaps because decision making enhances the intrinsically reductive and theorizing processes of the neuro cortex and therefore feels like a natural methodology. These processes of the brain, which Simon prescribes and describes by extension, are also described as neuro-Darwinism by physicist Matthew Bergstrom (Briggs, 1988).
Neuro-Darwinism refers to the process by which the neo-cortex selects and interprets sensory data coming from the brain stem. It is the way the human brain creates and reinforces "realities" (Briggs, 1988). When the random fields of neuroelectric impulse from the brain stem meet the information-packed impulses from the cortex, a selection process takes place, according to Bergstrom (Briggs, 1988). The random bursts from the brain stem mix up some of the information coming from the cortex and from the memory retrieving limbic systems. The result is new information, new thoughts, and the possibility of new behavior. Bergstrom calls this a possibility cloud that contains mutations, variants, and error that struggle with the old firing patterns of the sympatic system. The strongest signals in relation to the whole context of signals at that instance will survive. A signal's survival is "like the survival of a variant animal most suited to the environment at the moment" (Briggs, 1988, p. 45).
Thoughts themselves, neuro-physicists William Gray (1979) and Paul LaViolette (1979, 1980) say, are stereotyped or simplified emotional themes. When we form thoughts, we abstract from the complexity of sensory nuances brought to us through the evolutionarily older brain stem. As these emotional themes circulate through the Papez Circuit they call up long-term memories that have similar nuance characteristics. These memories become part of the evolving theme. There is always a sense of wondering and incompleteness, Gray says, but in the normal course of events this wondering and incompleteness is obscured by the transformation of the theme into an organization of thought--an emotional cognitive structure (Briggs, 1988; Gray, 1979). Once these structures are formed, they are changed with great difficulty and particularly so if reductive thinking like that employed in decision making is practiced religiously (Briggs, 1988, p. 48).
Simon's work, characterized by his travel theorem, appears to refine this action of the cortex as rational decision making. That is to say that only those signals that can easily be reinforced by limbic memory are allowed to survive. The result is that a frame of reference is continually reinforced and begins to appear to be reality--much like Simon's view of Mont Ste. Victoire. It becomes reality because any other signals that might distort it are suppressed by the increasingly strong signals that the cortex chooses from the limbic system. Indeed, new research indicates that there can be no new thought without emotional and sensory input. This is also supported by the chaos work of Nonaka (1988).
For example, Simon describes the inability of administrators to neatly separate rational fact and emotionally subjective values as the limits of rationality. Clearly, human emotions are not seen by Simon as the way to expand consciousness--as new brain research indicates--but as a deficiency in the order of rationality (p. 244). This deficiency clouds the decision-making process because it appears to disrupt the strategic thinking that results in a decision about right action according to a preexisting model (Harmon, 1989, 1992). What must happen to correct this supposed dysfunction of human nature is for values to be objectified--in much the manner that Simon attempts to strip language of the emotional power of its life in culture. In fact, Simon promotes cybernetics as an alternative language that avoids the ambiguities of human discourse by clearly connecting action with the arrangement of objective, single-meaning symbols (p. 193). This need for certainty, however, makes it appear that realities, like cultural diversity, are problems to be managed. Indeed, however, they may well be the enriching source of the information-laden nuance by which human consciousness is expanded.
The idea of satisficing, for example, which was central to Simon's early book, Models of Man (1957b), defines human purpose as a Darwinian struggle for survival and nothing more (pp. 274-275). On reflection, in his autobiography 35 years later, Simon equates satisficing with a kind of "it'll do" natural selection.
Bracketing satisficing with Darwinism may appear contradictory, for evolutionists sometimes talk about survival of the fittest. But, in fact, natural selection only predicts that survivors will be fit enough--that is fitter than their losing competitors; it postulates satisficing not optimizing. (p. 166)
Simon's prescription for right decision making is to select among those sensory nuances that allow individuals to compete with the opposition. What becomes competitive is repeatedly reinforced in the interactions of human beings, all of whom share the minimalist purpose of satisficing. Satisficing is thereby made a reality by the process of decision making, a reality that re-creates itself by its repeated and exclusive accommodation of its own principles. It is therefore a process that can be replicated in the programming of computers (Simon, 1957a).
Indeed, Simon's interest in artificial intelligence seems really a radical attempt to move the rationalizing functions of the neo-cortex away from the threat to certainty posed by the sensory nuances that bombard the physical body (1992, p. 362). By placing the neo-cortex in a computer, the disengaged mind is free to create its models of reality and achieve perfection in relation to those models without sensory interference. As Simon says, "The area of rationality is the area of adaptability to these nonrational elements" (p. 88). By standardizing and objectifying values--that is, by limiting the play of environmental accidents by always relating them to immutable values detached from their emotional life, the manager can guarantee that organizational members will always arrive at the same "rational" decision (p. 88).
Yet the broader implication for democratic public administration is that decision making, as problem solving, inhibits sensory signals from developing into mature emotional themes, as chaos theorists understand the process. Indeed, decisions made without an awareness of the positive role of senses and emotions in the creation of new thought not only stereotype whatever sensory information comes in but also impoverish the individual's ability to create new thought in changing contexts. The result is a "flat" system of thought, as physicist Paul Rapp would term it, which inhibits the individual's ability to produce new solutions to old problems (Nonaka, 1988).
By contrast, LaViolette suggests that listening to sensory and emotional nuance is likely to have a positive effect on the quality of the decision made. "It is good to tune into feelings before they get abstracted into thought," he says. Further, "People who can do this are able to directly tune into data of far greater complexity." Such sensitivity fosters creativity and the ability to see things in new ways (1979, p. 20).
The feeling of nostalgia might serve as an example of LaViolette's reasoning regarding public policy. If nostalgia is thought to be an attachment to a particular set of historical circumstances--like middle-class family values--and that thought is consciously used to filter out any new feelings, a stereotype of the good-old-days of family values is likely to be reinforced. A disposition is thereby created that rejects change and provides no avenue for the values to be renewed. However, if nostalgia is felt in relation to a broad range of contextual nuance and is allowed to circulate freely in the brain, it is possible that a new thought will emerge that integrates the old with the new context to form a transcendent, more contextually relevant value. The individual is thereby able to accommodate the changed environment without being forced to reject a treasured memory.
This indicates that Simon's methodology, far from reducing conflict, impedes the natural processes by which difference is accommodated and social stability is maintained. Instead, it seems to reinforce stereotypes based on preconceived, expert models and only resolves the dilemma of this by denying that people have the ability or the altruistic desire to create more real and more democratic perceptions of each other (p. 175). It is Simon's general method, for example, to dismiss any affront to his principles simply by denying the relevance and even the existence of any arguments other than those that appear to be only the opposite of his own. For example, he mocks those who cannot imagine that computers can think:
There is a knock-down argument that is supposed to answer the question instantly. It goes like this: Computers are machines; machines cannot think; hence computers cannot think. Human beings are also (biological) machines; therefore, if machines cannot think, human beings cannot think. (pp. 272-273)
When the premises of this retort are not embraced, Simon laments that proving the reality of computer thought is like Darwin trying to prove the evolution of human beings from monkeys (p. 273). He thereby ignores the human capacity to participate in evolution by making choices and also dismisses the fact that human beings do not necessarily see their next highest evolution being the perfected machine. In fact, they may not see themselves as machines at all. Therefore, the automatic evolution to computer excellence is not necessarily a conscious (and therefore democratic) choice but more an adaptive acquiescence to technology (Appleyard, 1992). Indeed, modern physics, with its emphasis on organic systems, has long since made the notion of "mechanical humans" outdated (e.g., Olstein & Sobel, 1987). Yet, Simon limits his own options because of his reluctance to engage history, choosing instead to avoid conflict and true choice. There can be no transforming heroics in this case, no transcendence of the dreary history he critiques. Simon can only prove his point or become martyred for failing.
It is human aspiration, however, that makes it seem ironic that, although the cortex is responsible for reducing sensory data to what fits preexisting models of thought (i.e., satisficing), it also houses the human capability for intentionality and choice (Argyros, 1991; Briggs, 1988). That is to say that whether or not we limit our consciousness as human beings to a bounded rationality may really be a choice we make about the purposes of human action. For example, we might ask ourselves: Is the purpose of human action simply to discover certain truths and replicate them, or is the purpose of human action to create knowledge and continue in the evolutionary movement such knowledge generates? The strongest irony of Simon's work is that it is perhaps a brilliant recognition of a current incomplete state of human consciousness. However, rather than attempting to exceed that bounded state Simon's rational man seeks to reinforce and glorify it. He does this by disengaging from the complexity of the broader environment. In turn, Simon uses the principles of this disengaged reason to reaffirm the validity of his theories. Simon creates an alternative, narrow reality in this sense. By so doing, however, he condemns the human enterprise to the bounded limits of the memory of its own history.
This repetitive act of theory affirmation is evident in the public arena. For example, academics are pleaded with to be more practical--to address realities as they are--not as they should or might be (Brown, 1989). This affirmation of the existing patterns of relationships, however dysfunctional those relationships may be to democracy, has come to equate public management, as Simon does, with ordinariness. So administrators and citizens are taught ways to survive the adversarial policy environment rather than being encouraged to think about how to change that desperate reality. The result has been the reduction of public dialogue to a competitive and defensive exchange of information for the purposes of winning policy arguments mediated by a problem-solving public administration (Blake, 1990; Giddens, 1990).
Aspirations, as they come to reflect themselves in values, however, must be recognized for their compelling relationship to the capacity of human beings to make choices about the nature of their future--such choices being perhaps the primal democratic act. One might, for example, as Simon does, choose to structure and control nuance so that "nothing new is learned" and be quite successful at it because the neo-cortex has become so adept at that kind of filtering. Yet these designs must--by design--limit choice to decisions about acceptable alternatives. As such, rational decision making is a limitation on choice, even in the minimalist understanding of democracy, as simply the right to choose.
Yet an individual also may choose to reject this bounded rationality in search of a broader consciousness and new possibilities. It is not then that bounded rationality is simply an end point of human capability. Of course, to choose to engage the evolutionary forces of nature means that conflict between the rationalizing forces of the neo-cortex and the new thoughts pushing to be formed is simply inevitable and no doubt uncomfortable for the defensive mind. It is this state of discomfort that concerns Simon because his view of human purpose is the avoidance of such discomfort and uncertainty--but not necessarily by choice but also because of limited capability to choose. To Simon, bounded rationality is at once a mental limitation and a human disposition toward fear of the unknown (pp. 365366).
For Simon's prescriptions to work, however, he must do more than simply advocate a methodology for rationalizing a complex world; he must create a human being to fit the sterile environment the methodology produces. For example, after completing Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment in 1956, Simon says, in his autobiography, that he was so pleased with the work that he felt compelled to write a short story about it (p. 175). This compulsion was revitalized with the outcome of an unlikely interview with Argentinean poet, Jorge Luis Borges, years later.
Simon asked for an interview with Borges during a trip to Argentina in 1970 where Simon was giving a management lecture. He was interested in Borges' use of labyrinths as a central theme of his prose (Borges, 1978). Simon wondered if his own attempts to understand human behavior by means of mathematical models might somehow be reinforced by Borges' understanding of the maze-like labyrinth (pp. 175-176). Simon projected that Borges' use of the maze as a metaphor in his stories supported to his belief that human beings spend their existence working their way through complex mental mazes. The maze indeed, in Simon's understanding, determines human goals so that an act of conscious responsibility is simply not possible. The maze allows only adaptation to its circumstances and not meaningful or moral action (p. 88).
However, despite Simon's attempts to engage Borges in a discussion about the nature of decision making, the poet resisted a categorization of his work as an explanation of anything--except as some aspect of his soul that demanded expression in his works (p. 179). Simon then seemed to conclude that Borges was suffering the same fate as everyone else--a kind of limited consciousness that did not allow him to recognize the rational models implicit in his own work (p. 179). Because Borges' response had been inadequate (i.e., it did not meet the preconceptions Simon brought to the conversation), Simon's response was to rationalize the labyrinth myth by writing his own short story to explain his theory of bounded rationality.
"The Apple," a short story in Models of my Life, is a recount of the life of the functionalist Hugo. Hugo is forced by an initial need to eat and, by the maze-like structure of his castle (Simon's metaphor for the mind), to develop tastes for certain foods--his choices being determined at first by which door he chooses, the types of food on the table, and the degree of his hunger. To cut down on the time searching for the food he has come to prefer, Hugo keeps records. When the records do not increase the efficiency of finding the foods he enjoys, Hugo begins to notice more things in his environment that might be affecting his taste--a particular painting in a particular room, for example. The worst aspect of Hugo's existence is the burden of choice:
Now he (Hugo) felt the burden of choice--choice for the present and the future. While the largest part of his mind was enjoying its leisure--playing with his thoughts or examining the murals--another small part of it was holding the half-suppressed memory of aspirations to be satisfied, of plans to be made, of the need for rationing his leisure to leave time for his work. It would not be fair to call him unhappy, not accurate to say that he was satisfied, for the rising and falling tides of his aspirations always kept close synchrony with the level of the attainable and the possible. Above all, he realized that he would never again be free from care. (p. 184)
The rational, ordinary man is mainly anxious--about things left undone, about survival, about meeting the imperatives of his goals. He avoids the dangers of life outside the castle by responding to the details of the system. The system, as Simon portrays it, is separate from people and mocks any moral purpose that might assign meaning to the complexity Hugo avoids. Simon writes:
The story provides no heroics, no Theseus to seek out some fearsome Minotaur at its center and then escape by following the thread given by Ariadner. Its central figure is not Theseus but Hugo, an ordinary man. The story describes Hugo's life, much like every human life, as a search through a maze. In doing so it strips the mathematical wrapping from the technical paper that provided the metaphor. (p. 175)
Hugo is ordinary in the most reductive sense of the word. He has a limited desire to do more than accommodate his environment. In fact, Hugo, until he is forced by the demands of efficiency and hunger, resists any urge to expand his horizons or tackle the ambiguities implicit in the systemized order of his castle. His limited consciousness remains fixed on outcomes that are likely to be no more satisfying than a meal taken from a limited menu. Even leisure time is an expressionless and lonely task of playing with his thoughts:
Fortunately for him (Hugo), he found these pictures and his own thoughts sufficiently pleasant and of sufficient interest to guard him from boredom, and he had become so accustomed to the solitary life that he was not bothered by loneliness . . . (p. 177)
In Simon's view, isolation in a lonely mental castle is not only a fact of human existence, the superior rational man also chooses to be there. But the choice is only the selection of what appears to be the lesser of two evils. Because Simon sees human action as being essentially power driven, rather than relational and interdependent (e.g., chap. 9), Hugo has no real choice except to be alone and anxious about survival. For example, one of Simon's metaphors about scientific life is the "island" as the "locus for innovation;" the "place where scientists might be protected from the need to defend the tender mutants" (p. 147).
The island metaphor, borrowed from Darwin, would appear to limit responsible action in the name of community to the protection of truths which, to remain intact, must exist in suspicion of the community they seek to serve. Yet for Simon to make sense of his own methodology, the pattern of human relationships has to be understood as something other than cooperative, dialogic, and potentially loving. Simon therefore champions the ordinary man, the one he says has no interest in anything broader than a comfortable survival in a competitive world.
Yet, Simon seems to empower the rational, expert administrator at the same time he denigrates the ordinary man by glorifying the low road of human endeavor with a terse, bone-dry methodology for coping with life one decision at a time. Indeed, Simon raises the manager to the level of a ruling elite by minimizing the aspirations of ordinary human beings--aspirations that threaten the premises of Simon's rationality. The manager becomes the Everyperson's (p. 363) hero--the one who has categorically figured out how to resolve the complexity of existence. Simon's manager makes the neo-Darwinistic presumption that those who have mastered the reductive processes of filtering achieved by the neo-cortex are by definition superior to those who live their lives in less calculated ways (Bologh, 1990, pp. 91-138). The ordinary man only retains the dubious honor of "ordinary" if he also succumbs to a reduction of his morality and will to what fits Simon's model of rationality. In this way, Simon perhaps shows less compassion for the ordinary man in his tale of Hugo than disdain for his continuing bondage to human emotion and human relationship.
Reviving the potentiality of a grander human spirit than what Hugo can imagine, however, means government must assert its own ability to make choices by engaging political life rather than simply managing it. The generative basis of such an enriched social dialogue may well be what has historically been meant as a judgment. Judgment is perhaps not simply comparing the facts of the context to an existing value framework as Simon might describe it. Instead making a judgment may be the process of absorbing as many nuances as possible and allowing them free interplay with the forms of existing value stored in memory. It is here that diversity in an administrator's environment ceases simply to be a mass of complex problems to be simplified and solved and becomes the creative seedbed for new thought and action.
The difference between Simon's rational decision and an emotive judgment is illustrated by comparing the orthodoxy of Weber and that of Hegel, as Shaw does (1992). For Weber (1943), decisions rest on technical expertise. Such expertise is understood as knowledge of the system of rule that constitutes the policy arena and the systemic application of those rules to presenting cases. Rules achieve political outcomes and reduce arbitrary action with a standard of equity (Shaw, p. 384). According to Shaw, Weber's ideal of bureaucracy grants administrative legitimacy through adherence to the rules, rules being stable, universally applicable, and learnable (p. 384).
It is this rule-based expertise that Simon ennobles. Indeed, Simon equates the reduction of liberal education to the repetitive principles of technical professionalism as a democratization of academia. The implication is that the creations of democracy are ordinary and to assume they can be of any other complexity is elitist (pp. 263-268). Hegel, on the other hand, replaces rational decision making with subsumption--a process of judgment by which bureaucrats mediate between universal legal norms and individual cases. to ascertain what is right. In this case, the bureaucrat legitimates action by the degree of reflection, the judgment itself being, based on the validity of discretion. This discretion distinguishes the judgment defined here from a decision that is only a critical comparison between the context and the ideal. The act of discretion is one of accommodation of contextual difference rather than judgmental evaluation. A judgment then begins from the democratic premise of acceptance.
Such discretion, Shaw says of Hegel, expands the possibilities in any situation from simply accepting or rejecting an idea based on how well it fits the mental framework of rules and/or a virtuous ideal (p. 385). The implication is that the relationship between the old knowledge, as it is expressed in law and value, and the new context is one of dialogue rather than competition; the goal of reflection is the creation of a new judgment applicable to the setting--not the suppression of elements that are extraneous, inferior, or superfluous to the old value system. A judgment then is not disengaged reason in search of a static ideal as prescribed by Descartes and Locke (Taylor, 1989, pp. 111-199). It is the "law of the situation" as Follett described it (1965). As a praxis between memory and context, judgment is the creation of the engaged "organic intellectual" of Antonio Gramsci--the practitioner/academic who is grounded in law and value, but who is also a listening participant in history (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 6, 12-15, 330).
The further democratic implication is that judgment emerges from the dialogue in which both bureaucrats and citizens are active participants. Ordinariness might be seen in a less reductive light in this case--as the state of both accepting and engaging reality as it is but not for the purposes of analyzing it for its deficiencies but for the purpose of enhancing and renewing it through cooperative, creative thought.
A judgment would seem to require a well-defined awareness of the nature of old thought patterns like values and their history. But, a judgment also requires an equally intense sensory absorption in the historical context that Simon denies the Rational Man.
It may be that the role of values in the process of judgment making are not merely the imbedded principles for right action. Instead, they are simply known, as previously created structures in the way an artist might recognize a just-finished painting. The meaning of values, however, is never quite the same in each new view of them even as their intrinsic structure endures. Values are much like Mont Ste. Victoire for Simon--once they are removed from the dynamics of the political world, they cease to exist as social influences but become only reflections of a defensive ideological memory. The democratic value of equality, for example, must be discovered and rediscovered in the dynamics of democratic life. Equality therefore cannot be assigned, imposed, granted, or managed from a distance. It must be practiced. Such a practice begins with the belief that citizens have the evolutionary drive to take on such a mutually enlightening dialogue--that they have something to contribute and that democratic issues do matter to the ordinary person.
It is no small irony that Simon chooses to rationalize the myth of the Minotaur in his short story, "The Apple." It is the hero's journey in that myth and the angst of creativity implicit in Borges' tales of the labyrinth that most threaten the idea of the rational man. Borges tells the story of the Minotaur, Asterion, and his paradoxical life in the labyrinth of the great architect Daedalus. The labyrinth of Borges may well serve as a metaphor of the mind as Simon indicates, but of the mind as it is part of a connected universe, not as the utilitarian, isolated computer-brain of Hugo. It is a mind whose function is to create--a function that requires freedom and the absence of final truths. The universe to Asterion is not a limited box of safe alternatives but a "mythic universe pregnant with unformulated ideas" (Wheelock, 1989, p. 148).
Unlike, Simon's Hugo, Asterion is conscious of the responsibility implicit in having the capability to create his own identity. Certainly Asterion suffers more in this consciousness than Hugo, the satisficing antihero, who Simon describes as being only threatened by the potential of boredom and an inarticulated malaise (p. 177). Being responsible for one's own development is a painful burden . . . "an existential terror which befalls the ego-centered man as he awakes to the preceding," (p. 148). The terror arises from the uncertainty of an existence that is in constant renewal.
Simon's rational man, by contrast, is the quintessential modern liberal, who, in Rorty's view, would seek to avoid the pain and cruelty of the contingent human existence (Rorty, 1989). The moralism with which Simon addresses his work--his willingness to shift responsibility from the individual to the concept of a computer mind--perhaps reflects his liberal desire to stop the discomfort inherent in the human condition. Yet in doing so, he also denies the potential of meaningful, creative action, and personal development that may be the purpose of the uniquely human evolutionary process. Ironically, perhaps, this process, if freed from the reductive presumptions of behaviorism, is the very way in which Simon's bounded rationality is exceeded.
The paradox of Asterion's labyrinth is perhaps that of Gawthrop's (1993) "Barefoot Administrator" who must assume the awesome responsibility of acting in the public good but who must, at the same time, humbly submit to the democratic processes of community. A genuine love of service and of the public is what mitigates action rather than the expertise for such an administrator. He or she does not seek power but instead strives for enlightenment and compassionate action. This sharply contrasts with Simon's attitude about the nature of democratic leadership. The democratic manager, Simon says, is always free to listen to input:
Management does not have to be weak to be "participative." All it requires is a manager who is strong enough in his inner convictions not to feel obliged to defend himself from ideas that come from without. (p. 149).
Such an attitude has serious implications for democratic accountability and the respect afforded citizens. Public administration has largely accepted the uncentered and unreflexive identity described by Simon whereby "The nature of the task to be accomplished and the pressure of the task requirement of the organization shapes the agency" (p. 118). The metaphor of Asterion's creative labyrinth, however, may suggest an identity for public administration that better serves the field than the beleaguered notions of objectivity, political adaptability, and decision making.
The self-conscious public administrator would maintain a vision of the purpose of democratic action--not by methodically picking among limited alternatives--but in the manner of freeing himself or herself from historical interests and the attendant details to seek an understanding of the broader good through creative dialogue. In other words, the self-conscious administrator would conduct his or her professional life within the more enduring processes of the community rather than in response to the temporal artifacts of decision making (Walzer, 1988; Wolfe, 1989). Key to this is the reengagement of public administrators with citizens through meaningful, relational dialogue, free of guile and strategy. It is in this loving relationship that the administrator may encounter new thought in a manner that nurtures the evolution of community and culture.
In his autobiography, Simon portrays public administration schools as the stagnant "backwater" of academia system (p. 114). Given Simon's representations of neo-Darwinistic thought, what might backwater mean? Perhaps it is a place teeming with chaos, diversity, conflict, "wicked" problems, emotive relationships, and moral dilemmas--all the conditions of a primordial fight for the survival of the "fit enough." Yet these are also the preconditions for evolutionary movement and the processes of a responsible democratic society. But like backwater behind a dam, public administration (and its students) are held back from developing a democratic consciousness because the dynamic elements of the political environment are viewed, by academics and practitioners alike, as problematic when indeed they are positive and inevitable aspects of democratic life.
Changing this sense of identity, however, would seem to require more than a reintroduction of democratic values into the dialogue of public administration. It would also seem to require less concern for certainty and more concern for making room for diversity through creative thought. Indeed, it would require a new identity for public administration that legitimates the use of discretion and judgment. Simon has shown us the loneliness and isolation of the practiced an of detached observation. For there to be meaning in our actions as administrators, we must embrace the chaos of our citizens' lives. But finding meaning in the very human processes of democratic life requires an evolutionary move to a more vital consciousness than that afforded by neo-Darwinism and Hugo, the tragic antihero, laboring in a lonely bureaucratic maze.
1. Unless otherwise noted, citations to Simon refer to Models of my Life, 1992.
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