Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Jane Austen and Game Theory

Jane Austen and economics are natural matches, since few people before or since do a better job of showing how financial matters control or affect the direction of a person's life. I wrote an article on Austen and income inequality so I got a kick out of this article on Austen and game theory by Michael Chwe.

I believe that Austen is a game theorist herself, interested in how people make choices and how people anticipate the choices of others. Like any game theorist, Austen's interest is both practical and theoretical. For example, what distinguishes game theory, and economics generally, from other social science approaches is its emphasis on individual choice. That's how economists explain behavior. For Austen, choice is an obsession.
Women, especially back in the day, have always been forced to tolerate a constraint of choices. Middle class women had little hope of earning enough to support themselves; Louisa May Alcott--spinster and extremely important source of revenue in her family--often wrote of young women's frustration when they try to use their talents to earn a living. Austen's women had even fewer choices and they were often shrewd observers or experts in gaming the system that excluded them.

Every choice had to be considered, to calculate the effect it would have on others and how these reactions would affect the women's lives. Marianne Dashwood had a wealthy father but the law excluded her from inheritance. She had to marry because a husband was the only source of income available, and anything that affected her marriage affected her ability to support herself. She was considered foolish because she ignored the consequences of her actions and their probable effect on her financial future. Austen was realistic about the realities of her time and therefore was able to be extremely perceptive regarding people's motivations. People usually act for their own benefit, for good and ill.

I would disagree a little with the author's statement that "Austen consistently argues for commensurability: the many aspects of an alternative are in the end reducible to a single feeling;" in his example Catherine is just a teenager enjoying a novel experience; she is not old and experienced enough to go through the kind of financial panic that other Austen heroines endure. Elizabeth Bennett loves Darcy but she must constantly calculate the effect her circumstances has on her chances of marriage. The feelings might be simple but the choices never are.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

But even back in the 19th century, economists realized how imperfect markets were becoming. This was the era of "oligopoly" -- a "market situation in which producers are so few that the actions of each of them have an impact on price and on competitors."

What's old is new again, save for the focus. And it's all obscured with Randian boilerplate.

Batocchio said...

The feelings might be simple but the choices never are.

Yes, and for some Austen characters, the feelings aren't simple, either.

(By the way, aimai also wrote on this.)