(Herbert) Simon Says: “If…for want of a nail the kingdom was lost…rational behavior would be virtually impossible.”

Those of you who with whom I have debated philosophy or discussed social science know that I am a big fan of the late Herbert Simon. He was one of the great minds of the last century and his work laid the groundwork for organizational and decision theory, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence. Concepts he developed such as “satisficing” and “bounded rationality” are still in good circulation and are once again gaining steam with the rise of behavioral economics.

The point is, he’s big, and will continue to be big as the field of economics tries to find new direction after the global financial crisis. He was mainstream in the sense that he received the “Nobel” for economics and was in close contact with the likes of Kenneth Arrow and Milton Friedman, but he was always more of a political or social scientist, and so his work is more accessible and useful to interdisciplinary practitioners. His philosophy is a very sparse and pragmatic rationalism, one that leaves abundant space and encourages empirical inquiry, but at the same time is coherent and clear enough to save the investigator from losing sight of why the investigation was begun in the first place.


So, I’m experimenting with a little series with Simon quotes and expanding a bit on why I find them insightful and useful for my work. The quote in the subject line comes from Simon’s Administrative Behavior. (The full quote is at the bottom for those of you desiring more context.)

This quote speaks to the conditions under which rationality is in fact possible, and that we routinely encounter areas where we can behave in a rational manner, has more to do with how the world around us is organized, than with our prodigious calculating powers. The quote from Simon paints a particularly clear picture of the lunacy of any complex enterprise for which success was only possible through such exacting requirements for planning and execution. A king whose plans were so delicate, no matter what his abilities, would not be a king for long.

And what does this tell us? It gives a perspective on adapting to all the challenges of an increasingly complicated world, especially those that come from disrupting natural systems that our societies were long accustomed to behaving in a regular manner. Through better organization, better communication, and better science we can make better decisions, but there are certain levels of complexity under which we collectively and individually will not be able to behave rationally.


The quote also speaks to the advantages of designing our institutions for simplicity. While I don’t think this is at all controversial, one must hold in mind that simplicity may demand what some see as arbitrary. A little tweak, a little exception can always align a policy better with the realities on the ground. The result can often be something such as the U.S. Tax Code, which by virtue of its very complexity undermines many objectives that it may at the same time seek to promote. My axiom is to accept the small stupid where possible, in order to avoid the big one.

In his later work, Simon describes two different design programs, and warns that we must differentiate them. The first is the Apollo Program, truly an amazing feat and one that people cite to this day “If we could put a man on the moon, couldn’t we…?” If only all our problems could be solved with time, money, and engineers. But they can’t. The goal of the Apollo Program was very clear and all the necessary money was made available. And so Simon contrasts it with the problem of organizing and maintaining a free society. And here he points to the U.S. Constitution, a work that is still in progress with goals that are much more vaguely defined and which we still fight over.

Indeed, a spacecraft can be lost for want of a rivet or a failure to convert from metric. But a society should not be. And yet some of the shriller and most heard voices are yammering about issues that are no larger than nails..

And here is the quote from Administrative Behavior (Third Edition):

“It has already been remarked that the subject, in order to perform with perfect rationality … would have to have a complete description of the consequences following from each alternative strategy and would have to compare these consequences. He would have to know in every single respect how the world would be changed by his behaving in one way instead of another, and he would have to follow the consequences of behavior through unlimited stretches of time, unlimited reaches of space, and unlimited sets of values. Under such conditions even an approach to rationality in real behavior would be inconceivable.

Fortunately, the problem of choice is usually greatly simplified by the tendency of the empirical laws that describe the regularities of nature to arrange themselves in relatively isolated subsets. Two behavior alternatives, when compared, are often found to have consequences that differ in only a few respects and for the rest are identical. That is, the differential consequences of one behavior as against an alternative behavior may occur only within a brief span of time and within a limited area of description. If it were too often true that for want of a nail the kingdom was lost, the consequence chains encountered in practical life would be of such complexity that rational behavior would be virtually impossible. (Simon, 1976, accessed through RJ Gray, 1999)

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