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  • The Limited Triumph of Functional Rationality Response to Hans Blokland
  • Robert Lane (bio)

Hans Blokland says that the "rationalist, consumerist, individualist world view" reproduces itself and at the same time that it undermines people's well-being it prevents them from seeking redress of their grievances by democratic means. People are trapped by their simultaneous realization that while most of them are fooled by their cultures into believing the very world view that denies them more fruitful alternatives, in a democracy people's own preferences are considered sacred. Blokland further says that I recognize and give evidence on the unhappy consequences of this "rationalist, consumerist, individualist world view" but fail to examine its structural origins. He has identified an important point that deserves an answer.

We write in somewhat different traditions, Blokland in the tradition of political and sociological theory, I in a tradition of empirical, behavioral research. I will have to answer in my tradition, but, as will shortly be evident, I trespass on alien ground (especially neuroscience and cognitive psychology) where I am only a visitor.

To set the record straight, I do not say that modernity "mainly produces misery," but rather I give evidence that in the United States (but not in Europe) there has been an apparent decline during the post-war period in many indicators of subjective well-being. The main message, however, is that although increased income makes people measurably happier in less developed countries, increases in income have no such effect above the poverty level in advanced economies. In general, people in advanced economies, modernized in that sense, are almost universally happier than are people in less developed countries (LDC)1 but within that group of modern countries, wealth makes little hedonic difference. Modernity, itself, however, is associated with greater happiness.

Also, although I did not have the evidence at the time I wrote The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, I can now add that this hedonic loss since World War II is somewhat repaired wherever and whenever the main provisions of the welfare state are enhanced.2 Ponder this: increased private goods do not make the average person happier in rich countries, but increases in such quasi-public goods as welfare, social security, and broad health insurance do. Since the welfare state is as "modern" as the market, again one cannot claim that in the aggregate modernity is a source of misery.

Although the themes of modernity that Blokland identifies include differentiation and individualization, Blokland's main point has to do with Max Weber's and Karl Mannheim's allegations about the effects of rationalization of society. I will focus on this part of Blokland's thesis. In Blokland's and others' treatments, rationalization as a concept has two (or more) meanings, of which the first is the ordering of society in a set of tightly organized, purposeful institutions. The allegation is that these institutions constrain the way people think. In the market, they must devote their lives to earning money, balancing their budgets, calculating comparative prices, in short, they must become "economic men." In dealing with or working in bureaucracies, they are governed by a web of written and unwritten rules which they must learn in detail and which, if violated, lead to penalties.

The rationalization of society, so the thesis goes, requires one mode of thought and inhibits or excludes another; it requires functional rationality, thinking about how to achieve given ends, and inhibits or excludes another, substantive rationality, or thinking about which ends and purposes to pursue. These rationally organized institutions are also said to inhibit other forms of mental activity, forms that cannot be called substantial or any other kind of rationality. The additional inhibited forms of mental activity include artistic creativity and imagination, feelings of unity with the infinite, various kinds of lateral or associative thinking, playfulness and humor, and such non-purposeful mental relaxation as musing and reflection. Although Weber includes expression of emotions as a separate mode of orientation, neither he nor anybody else at the time realized how neurotransmitters enlisted emotions in cognitive processes.3 Affection and love are, as Erich Fromm later observed,4 also thought to be driven out by rational...


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pp. 63-68
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