Military history

Part V

Theories of Strategy

Chapter 36

The Limits of Rational Choice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

—Yogi Berra (also attributed to Albert Einstein)

This section is concerned with the possibility of strategic theory based on the insights of contemporary social sciences. We have already seen how apparently detached intellectual activity was the product of wider social forces, whether the effort put in by the RAND Corporation to develop new sciences of decision-making, the foundation grants that encouraged business schools to adopt these—and which the more sociologically inclined organizational theorists sought to resist—or else the impact of the radical thinking of the 1960s on the relationship between discourse and power.

A particularly influential theory was one that stressed the benefits of treating all choices as if they were rational. Adherents were confident that they, almost uniquely, could offer a theory deserving of the accolade “social science” in which all propositions could both be deduced from a strong theory and then validated empirically. Though rational choice theory consistently delivered far less than promised, and its underlying assumptions became vulnerable to a fundamental challenge from cognitive psychology, it was promoted effectively and in a highly strategic manner. In a remarkably short space of time, supporters of the theory became embedded in political science departments. They were not deterred by the widespread apprehension that the theory depended on an untenable view of human rationality. The claim, they insisted, was no more than that the premise of rationality helped generate good theory.

The Rochester School

As Kuhn observed, the promotion of new schools of thought in academia has rarely depended on reason alone. Successful promotion has also relied on access to the sources of academic power through dispensing grants, editing journals, or appointing acolytes to faculty positions. So it was that economics was given a singular boost after the Second World War with a substantial investment which made it possible to exploit the opportunities for the sophisticated quantitative methods opened up by computers. As it grew in confidence and assertiveness, economics offered itself as the master discipline of the social sciences. There were no obvious boundaries to its imperialism. The “economic approach provides a framework applicable to all human behavior,” observed Gary Becker, “to all types of decisions and to persons from all walks of life.”1

Before the Ford Foundation began to invest in business schools in the late 1950s, it had already undertaken a major investment in the so-called behavioral sciences. This investment did not create the field, which could be traced back to the 1920s and the work of Charles Merriam and Harold Lasswell at the University of Chicago. There was already a developing interest in analyzing large data sets, such as censuses, election results, and polling data. Ford, followed by other foundations, undoubtedly made a difference, encouraging universities to establish centers for behavioral studies by providing large grants—often unsolicited (so that some universities were unsure what was expected of them)—to the tune of some $24 million between 1951 and 1957. The RAND Corporation’s influence was evident, with Gaither in charge of the Foundation and Hans Speier, the head of RAND’s social science division, advising. The aim therefore was to move away from earlier forms of social and political theory and encourage an interest in phenomena that could be measured. This new approach was described as “behavioralism” to emphasize the positivist, empirical, and value-free quality of the research. Against the anti-communist backdrop of the time, there was also concern that “social science” smacked too much of a “socialist science” or social reform.2 The individualistic assumptions behind this approach fit naturally with theories of markets and democracy and challenged Marxist notions of class struggle. This encouraged the view that liberal individualism was rational and collectivism irrational.3 The core attraction of the theory, however, was not ideological but that it was elegant, parsimonious, and genuinely innovative. Some of those attracted by its virtues even gamefully sought to demonstrate that it was not incompatible with Marxism. Unfortunately it was often asserted dogmatically and embraced as a project of ambitious model-building.

There was ambiguity about whether this theory was descriptive or prescriptive. Did it explain how actors did behave or how they should behave? If prescriptive, then actors would need to make a deliberate decision to follow the advice. That would be the rational thing to do. “To identify a rational choice is to say that an agent would, in some sense and circumstances, do well to make it. If actual agents do not, they rather than the theory may be at fault.”4 So if actors chose not to follow rational advice, they therefore were capable of behaving irrationally. If that was generally the case, the theory was going to be limited in any descriptive, let alone predictive, capacity. If, on the other hand, the theory was reliably descriptive, the prescription would be both obvious and irrelevant. Why should actors bother with strategy when the solution was evident in advance?5

The starting point for the theory was that individuals made their own choices in order to maximize their utilities, which could be subjectively defined, although there was a tendency to assume that these were quite basic and could be measured in terms of economic rewards or the acquisition of power. The next stage was for actors with their preferences to play a structured game, presuming a certain amount of knowledge about their own position and those of the other players. The following, crucial step would be to identify the equilibrium point. Assuming that all players followed strategies to maximize their utilities, this point would be one from which individual actors had no incentive to deviate. In principle, it would represent the most logical outcome to the strategic game and would set the terms for future empirical work.

A key figure in the development of rational choice theory at RAND was Kenneth Arrow, who developed the “impossibility theorem” that explained why democratic systems do not always produce outcomes that conform to the wishes of the majority. His student Anthony Downs, in his Economic Theory of Democracy used the idea of individuals maximizing their self-interest to challenge notions of public interest. The person who turned all this into what he saw as a paradigm shift in political science was William Riker. Riker had followed a relatively mainstream path since graduating from Harvard in the late 1940s, yet was looking for a means to elevate political science to a new level. He found it in game theory.

When he first became aware of game theory in the mid-1950s, Riker was attracted by the presumption of amoral rationality. He was reacting against what he saw as the then dominant paradigm of normative political theory, written as a set of imperatives, about how politics should be conducted rather than as an analysis of how it was actually conducted. Yet he also wanted to move beyond a Machiavelli-like focus on the realities of power. He aspired to something truly scientific, offering testable models that could guide empirical work. This was why he was excited by game theory, with its “uncompromising rationalism.” Asking what sensible people trying to achieve straightforward goals would choose to do was in line with traditional political science. This tradition he judged to have been lost during the first half of the century under the influence of biological, psychological, and metaphysical theories. Game theory left “no role for instinct, for thoughtless habit, for unconscious self-defeating desire, or for some metaphysical and exogenous will.”

The second appeal lay in the emphasis on free choice. Here Riker was reacting to the historical determinism associated with Marxism. Game theory assumed that people consider their own preferences and how alternative strategies might satisfy them in the face of similar calculations by opponents. The outcomes therefore depended on free human choices rather than on “some exogenous plan for the world” or “built-in human irrationality.” There was an obvious tension here, which Riker acknowledged. As a prescriptive theory this was fine. It was all about helping people make better choices. But as a descriptive theory, variations in choices caused all sorts of problems. The value of deterministic assumptions about rational choice was that they should help identify regularity of behavior and so make possible generalizations. Yet truly free choices allowed for quirky and random behavior that defied generalization.6 Riker saw game theory as offering a way out of the dilemma by combining the possibilities of generalization with free choice. On the one hand, it could be presumed that all persons with the same goals in the same circumstances would rationally choose the same alternative, so regularities could be observed. That did not, however, remove the role of choice, especially in situations characterized by uncertainty. In the end it was the choices that fascinated Riker most, and this meant that by the time he died he was moving into areas where science was of little help. But by that time he had spawned a whole school determined to prove that politics could be a science and was resolutely disinterested in it as an art.

In 1959, Riker applied for a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto with the aim of working in a field he described as “formal, positive, political theory.” “Formal” referred to “the expression of the theory in algebraic rather than verbal symbols” and “positive” to the “expression of descriptive rather than normative propositions.” He sought the “growth in political science of a body of theory somewhat similar to . . . the neo-classical theory of value in economics.” In particular he mentioned the potential role of the “mathematical theory of games” for “the construction of political theory.”7 The result of his fellowship was The Theory of Political Coalitions, which served as his manifesto. What made the difference in terms of the spread of his ideas, however, was his appointment to run the political science department at the well-endowed University of Rochester, already committed to forms of social science based on rigorous quantitative analysis. Here he insisted on students capable of statistical analysis and faculty who were signed on to his own vision. Under his leadership, Rochester moved up the rankings, producing graduate students who went forth into other departments to spread the word of rational actor theory. Two of his acolytes have written of “consistent, thorough preparation of students who recognized themselves to be part of a distinct movement to alter political science, the camaraderie and tightknit sense of community among those students, and their impressive scholarly productivity.” These students were “unyielding in their efforts to research and advance the theoretical paradigm of rational choice” and determined to “displace other forms of political science.”

In 1982, Riker became president of the American Political Science Association. He could observe the dominance of “the rational choice paradigm.” Its success was “driving out all others.”8 He was now arguing against the need to add such modifiers as “positive” or “formal” as this was the only “political theory” deserving of the name because it met scientific standards.9 By the 1990s, mathematics was an essential attribute for a political science program, and rational choice articles accounted for some 40 percent of all contributions to the American Political Science Review. There were complaints that the growing influence of the paradigm was due to a strong-arm mentality as much as clarity of thought. Rather than criticism being taken seriously, it was dismissed because the critics lacked the training to master the methods and so failed to understand what was going on. Because they supported their own, it was alleged that rational choice scholars would prefer a second-rate member of their own fraternity to anyone else when it came to appointments.10

Their theory was not a simple imposition of an economics model. The development of economics as a discipline had been served by the assumptions of self-interest, narrowly conceived, so that individuals facing the same constraints and with the same preferences would make the same choices each time. Both goals and the resources used to obtain them could be expressed in monetary terms and numerous comparable transactions could be observed in everyday economic life: the larger the sample the less important anomalous behavior and the more distinct the observable patterns and relationships. Riker was impressed by the robust market economics of the Chicago School, and this was present in his original Rochester curriculum. But he embraced game theory well before mainstream economists, and he was always careful to distinguish economics—which attributed a mechanical rationality to agents—from politics—in which rationality was deliberate and conscious, often in direct opposition to other actors. This was the basis of game theory, and on its use Riker’s school followed rather than led.

As the theorists became more ambitious, they moved from the areas where it might be assumed to be most valuable, with large samples but few variables, into areas of small samples and many variables. This included international relations. When the available options were not naturally constrained, the approach struggled because the identification of both a clear interest and an optimum strategy were hard to discern. Even in areas where findings were expressed with high confidence—for example, election studies—quite subtle variations in underlying conditions might render these findings unreliable. The more stable the environment the more behavior within it should show regularity. The more uncertain the environment the harder for actors to discern a rational way forward. In the textbook he wrote with Peter Ordeshook, Riker observed that when the “range of alternatives is infinite and when the consequences of choosing each alternative are uncertain, it is likely that most choices involve error.”11

If only certain sorts of solutions could be recognized, then only certain sorts of problems could be addressed. The most susceptible were likely to be the most narrow, with the model incorporating as few factors as possible. If any attempt was to be made at empirical validation, data sets were needed which involved a sufficiency of comparable instances that would occur in a measurable form. While the findings might confirm what had been deduced from the model, despite the mathematical trappings, this could rarely be considered a proof. Causation might have something to do with those factors that did not fit easily into the model or could not be readily measured. Even when goals were achieved it was not always possible to be sure whether this was the result of the actions chosen rather than chance, coincidence, or the critical intervention of an extraneous factor.

In the natural sciences, laws could be established. As particles did not have free will, cause and effect would be predictable. This was impossible when dealing with voluntary agents. Threats or inducements that normally produced one response could on occasion produce something quite different.

This might not matter when the aim was to affect numerous small and comparable transactions, as was often the case in economics. By insisting that research into politics must meet standards of formal rigor and mathematical elegance, priority could not be given to the quality of the questions asked or the value of the answers. One critic observed, “Rigor is subject to a conservation law, and the more rigor along mathematical dimensions, the less of it along other, perhaps more important, dimensions.”12 As game theorists addressed these limitations, they either had to move away from the strict confines of the theory or take it to levels of complexity that only the cognoscenti could savor or follow.

In one of the most serious challenges to rational actor theory in political science, Donald Green and Ian Shapiro observed that despite all the effort, what had been learned about politics was “exceedingly little.”13 They addressed one standard problem for rational choice theory which suggested that it would be irrational for anyone to vote since the time invested in the process would have to be set against the minimal impact that one person could expect to have on the final result. Yet people did vote in large numbers. How could the finding be reconciled without challenging a core precept of the theory? They mocked one response which explained the outcomes by “psychic gratification,” which might be an interest, but then why that rather than other interests? And what was the source of this gratification? Was it a concern for a cause, or belief that democracy depends on voting, or the quality of the candidates? The theory offered no good answer. When an interesting finding was obtained, explanations had to be found outside the theory. Stephen Walt concluded after surveying the application of the rational actor model to international relations theory that its “growing technical complexity” had not been matched by any “corresponding increase in insight.” The complexity allowed key assumptions to be buried and made the theories difficult to evaluate.14

One Kuhnian answer to this challenge was that “a theory cannot be rejected because of disconfirming facts.” It could “only be supplanted by a superior theory.”15 But this exaggerated the status of what were often no more than speculative hypotheses deduced from suspect models. The fact that they might be discussed mathematically did not put these theories on the same level as those in the natural sciences.

Forming Coalitions

The book announcing Riker’s new approach was on coalition formation. The nature of communication between players, and whether this could be incorporated within the game or involved working outside the confines of the game, was one of the most challenging issues for game theory. If the starting presumption of autonomous, rational individuals devoid of social ties and cultural references meant that there could be no presumption of empathy, cooperation would depend solely on the logic of situations rather than any natural inclinations. Von Neumann and Morgenstern had promised, without quite delivering, advice on how to form coalitions when more than one player came into the game. With three or more players (n-person games), it became harder to make simplifying assumptions. The conflicts of interest were less straightforward. With three players, two acting in concert should win. When such a coalition was formed the calculation was as simple as it would be for a two-person game with a minimax solution. The challenge was on working out whether the rational course for weak players was to gang up against a strong player (balancing) or ally themselves with a strong player (bandwagoning). As many alternative coalitions might be stable, it would be necessary to go methodically through all potential coalitions to work out an optimum strategy.

Just before Riker published his book, William Gamson had sought to develop a formal theory of coalitions. He agreed that the problem had to be reduced to a two-person game. He defined coalitions as “temporary, means oriented, alliances among individuals or groups which differ in goals.” They were likely to come together for the pursuit of power itself, by which he meant the ability to control future decisions. This they would be able to do because their joint resources would be greater than those of other units or coalitions. Some of the goals of the component parts would remain incompatible, but they could concentrate on those that were distinctively their own. But when it came to predicting who would join with whom, which required understanding the resources most relevant for a given decision, their distribution, and what alternative coalitions offered the parties in terms of payoffs, Gamson found that game theory produced too many solutions. His general hypothesis was that participants would expect from a coalition a proportional share of the payoff according to the resources they contributed. This, he suggested, depended on reciprocity and a step-by-step process of pairing until a decision point was reached.16

Riker took this further and developed a strong proposition, based on a study of coalition formation in legislatures, that complete and winning coalitions were “minimal” in the sense that they were just large enough to win and no larger, with the rider that the less perfect and less complete the participants’ information the larger the winning coalition would be. He found this “sparse model” worked quite well, though it deliberately excluded ideology and tradition.17 He also concluded, however, by the end of the 1960s that “much more energy has been expended on the elaboration of the theory of coalitions than on the verification of it.”18 Once again, the limits of game theory became evident when there were too many potential inputs and many possible outcomes.

In his book on coalitions, Riker asserted, “What the rational political man wants, I believe, is to win, a much more specific and specifiable motive than the desire for power.” This posed the issue in zero-sum terms, which for most political men might be true only in a narrow sense and suggested that attitudes toward coalition formation would at best be grudging. It also allowed him to define rationality without reference to power, giving his rational political man a definite personality: “The man who wants to win also wants to make people do things they would not otherwise do. He wants to exploit each situation to his advantage. And he wants to succeed in a given situation.”19 This reflected Riker’s own personal interest not so much in the occasional political acts of ordinary voters, to which his reflections on democracy assigned only a limited significance, but on the key players among the political elite. Arguably, just as game theory worked best in economics when looking at oligopoly, where there were few players, this form of political science worked best when looking at oligarchy.

An important attempt to demonstrate how the theory might be applied to a wider range of situations came from Mancur Olson, who was intrigued by the implications of the logic of self-interested rationality when it came to cooperation. Whereas Marx had sought class consciousness as a way of turning a shared interest into a political force, Olson pointed to the difficulties of a large and dispersed group ever acting as a political force. This was because each individual would assess that the marginal benefit from making contributions to a public good (that is one that is shared collectively rather than held by a few alone) was normally below the marginal cost, and also that their own contributions would barely make a difference. It was therefore irrational to cooperate with others, even in great numbers, to achieve collective goals: “Unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” An individual’s rational self-interest was to shirk on his contributions while continuing to receive benefit from the work of others.20

This problem of the “free rider” was one that could be recognized, for example, in a member of a military alliance who gained protection but put few resources into the pool. This point was made forcefully by Olson while working as a consultant to RAND in the 1960s. He showed how NATO’s smaller members found that they had “little or no incentive to provide additional amounts of the collective good,” and so burdens were shared in a disproportionate way.21 Even though there was a shared interest, there was no point in acting on that interest if it was likely to be achieved whether or not you acted and without you paying any price. By contrast, however, if an individual’s actions really would make a difference and the benefits would exceed the cost, then it was rational to act to secure the shared interest. In some respects, therefore, Olson offered a form of elite theory because he explained how small concentrated groups with resources could retain influence. The majority might hold a contrary interest, but so long as it was diffuse and dispersed its impact was muted.

Part of the explanation lay in a consideration of the social costs and benefits. An individual who did not bother to vote or join a union might escape notice, whereas in a small group engaged in an active campaign this would not be the case. On this basis Olson could explain, for example, why motor manufacturers might be able to lobby together for government measures that would keep car prices up, but the more numerous consumers would not be able to act equivalently to bring prices down. Collective goods affected everyone, but they were more likely to serve the interests of those best placed to lobby for them.

Once social pressures were admitted then the questions of where interests lay became more problematic. Questions of honor and reputation had to be socially validated. They were meaningless outside of a social context, but that also meant that they could vary with context. A theory in which interests were narrowly conceived and pursued, in the form of money and power, might remain elegant and parsimonious but not necessarily very realistic. A variety of types of interests did not in itself damage the theory, which required only that they be pursued efficiently, but it made it less elegant and parsimonious.

The Development of Cooperation

It was not necessarily the case that game theory could not cope with behavior other than the most egotistical. The authors of a popular account of game theory as a strategic tool noted that one difference from the first edition (1991) to the second (2008) was the “full realization of the important part that cooperation plays in strategic situations.”22 One way of providing a game- theoretic understanding of the development of social behavior was through iterated games, a point made most strongly by Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. The origins of this book are intriguing. It can be traced to Anatol Rapoport, who combined intense interest in game theory with an equally intense anti-militarism. Discovering von Neumann’s support for a preemptive war with the Soviet Union while the two were discussing support for mathematical biology was said to have been a turning point in his life. In 1964, he published a polemic against what he considered to be the misuse of game theory by strategists such as Schelling.23 While at the University of Michigan (before he moved to Toronto in protest at the Vietnam War), he actively promoted experimental games as a means of exploring the validity of theoretical “solutions” to theories of rational cooperation. Among a group who continued this work at Michigan was Robert Axelrod, also with a background as an antiwar activist.

Axelrod saw the possibilities of using computers to experiment with game theory by setting up a tournament. He invited experts to send programs for a game of prisoner’s dilemma that could be repeated up to two hundred times to see if it was possible to learn or signal in ways that produced a cooperative outcome. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the winner was a simple program submitted by Rapoport. The requirement was to play continuing games of tit-for-tat, which required that one side replicate what the other did in the previous round. The first command was “cooperate,” and a continuing cooperative outcome flowed naturally. The message was that cooperative behavior could “thrive with rules that are nice, provocable, and somewhat forgiving.”24 This made a point about the possibilities of cooperation at a time of Cold War tension, and it had the great advantage of not depending on claims about how human goodness could trump amoral rationality. Other than the somewhat critical starting assumptions, the process was then computer dependent and untouched by human hand. Compared to the egotistical presumption of the theory, Axelrod demonstrated that cooperation could be rational.

Did this have any value for strategists? The presumption was that cooperation was a good thing except when it obviously was not (such as cartels). The book was a hymn to the virtues of altruism and reciprocity. Axelrod came up with four rules to establish cooperation. First, do not be envious. Be satisfied with absolute rather than relative gains, so that if you are doing nicely, do not worry is someone is doing even better. Second, do not be the first to defect, because you need to establish the logic of cooperation. Third, if another player defects, reciprocate in order to establish confidence in your retaliation. Last, do not be too clever, as others will not be sure what you are up to. Axelrod also pointed to the importance of a long-term perspective. If you were in a relationship for a long time then it made sense to continue cooperation, even when there were occasional wobbles, but in short-term encounters there were fewer incentives to do so. Little might then be lost by defecting.

Axelrod’s analysis was not irrelevant to the conflicts with which strategy was largely concerned, especially those where there were significant areas of cooperation even against the backdrop of a general antagonism or competition. But the specific form of the tit-for-tat approach, even in situations which approximated to the form of prisoner’s dilemma, would be hard to replicate. A symmetry in position between two parties was rare so that the impact of moves, whether cooperation or defection, would not be the same. Cooperation was as likely to be based on exchange of benefits of different types as on things of equivalent value. This was why there were many ways in which cooperation could develop, for example by means of barter, rather than through iterated games of prisoner’s dilemma. One important point was reinforced by Axelrod’s tournament. Strategies have to be judged over time, in a series of engagements rather than in a single encounter. This is why it was unwise to try to be too clever. Players who used “complex methods of making inferences about the other player” were often wrong. It was difficult to interpret the behavior of another without accounting for the impact of one’s own. Otherwise, what might have been assumed to be complex signaling just appeared as random messages.

Using iterated games (though of assurance rather than prisoner’s dilemma), Dennis Chong looked hard at the civil rights movement to address the issue raised by Olson of rational participation in what he called “public-spirited collective action.” He saw the initial unwillingness to indulge in futile gestures and the later nervousness about taking personal risks when others were carrying the weight of the protest. This form of collective action offered no tangible incentives. Yet there were “social and psychological” benefits. It became a “long-term interest to cooperate in collective endeavors if noncooperation results in damage to one’s reputation, ostracism, or repudiation from the community.”

Chong noted the difficulty with looking at strategy in terms of the one- off encounters to which game theory seemed to lend itself. The ability to think long term required taking into account the “repeated exchanges and encounters that one will have with other members of the community.” The difficulty collective movements faced was getting started. Chong’s model could not explain where the leaders came from. They acted “autonomously” and got engaged without being sure of success or followers. Once a start had been made with the acquisition of the first followers but prior to any tangible results, momentum developed as a result of a form of social contagion. This led to the conclusion, which might have been reached by more straightforward historical observation, that “strong organizations and effective leadership” combined with “symbolic and substantive concessions” from the authorities. In addition, it was wise to be cautious about being able to identify any “combination of objective factors in a society that will predictably set off a chain of events leading up to a collective movement.”25

The problem was not that the methods used in rational choice could not lead to intriguing and significant insights but that so many really interesting questions were begged. Unless preferences were attributed (such as profit or power maximization) because they would work well for most actors in most circumstances, then only the actors themselves could explain what they were trying to achieve and what their expectations were with regard to their own options and the reactions of others. This meant that before the theory could get to work it had to be told a great deal. As Robert Jervis observed, the “actor’s values, preferences, beliefs, and definition of self all are exogenous to the model and must be provided before analysis can begin.”26 Rather than just take utility functions as givens, it was important to understand where they came from and how they might change with different contexts. “We need to understand not only how people reason about alternatives,” observed Herbert Simon, “but where the alternatives come from in the first place. The processes whereby alternatives are generated has been somewhat ignored as an object of research.”27

The point could be illustrated by the intellectual trajectory of William Riker. It was always an important feature of his approach that he did not assume that individuals were motivated by simple measures of self-interest, such as money or prestige, but allowed for other more emotional or ethical considerations. That is, utilities could be subjective, which reinforced the point about the prior determination of the preferences that were brought to the game.28 He also stressed that the structure of the game made a big difference. If the issue at stake was framed one way rather than another, alternative possibilities were opened up even with the same set of players.

In his outgoing address as president of the American Political Science Association in 1983, Riker identified three analytical steps. The first was to identify the constraints imposed “by institutions, culture, ideology and prior events,” that is, the context. Rational choice models came with the next step, which was to identify “partial equilibria from utility maximization within the constraints.” The third step was “the explication of participants’ acts of creative adjustments to improve their opportunities.” Unfortunately, he noted, not very much effort had been devoted to this third step. This was the arena of what he dubbed “heresthetics, the art of political strategy.”

This came from Greek roots for choosing or electing. As areas of comparative ignorance, he listed “the way alternatives are modified in political conflicts” and the “rhetorical content of campaigns which is their principal feature.”29 These means were important because that is how politicians structured the environment and required others to respond to their agenda. They could prevail by creating a situation with its own inexorable logic. It was through these devices that they could persuade others to join them in coalitions and alliances. This led the field away from the position where Riker had previously placed his flag. Simon commented, “I could wish he had not invented the word ‘heresthetics’ to conceal the heresies he is propagating.”30

Heresthetics was about structuring the way the world was viewed so as to create political advantage. Riker identified a number of heresthetic strategies: setting the agenda, strategic voting (supporting a less favored outcome to avoid something even worse), trading votes, altering the sequence of decisions, and redefining a situation. Initially he saw these forms of manipulation as separate from rhetoric, although it was hard to see how many of these strategies could work without persuasive skills. In an unfinished book, published posthumously, he was focusing much more on rhetoric. His disciples claimed that he was returning the discipline to “the science behind persuasion and campaigning,”31 but he acknowledged he was moving into terrain where the science would struggle. The point was made in the title of his book on heresthetics, The Art of Manipulation. He was clear that this was “not a science. There is no set of scientific laws that can be more or less mechanically applied to generate successful strategies.”32 In his posthumous book he expressed concern that “our knowledge of rhetoric and persuasion is itself minuscule.”33 Riker certainly did not abandon his conviction that statistical analysis could sharpen his propositions, and he was determinedly avoiding a large body of work that directly addressed exactly the issues of agenda setting, framing, and persuasion that were interesting him, because it was too “belle-lettres” and insufficiently rigorous. However, he still ended up where so many students of strategists found themselves, fascinated by why some players in the political game were smarter and more persuasive than their opponents.

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