In Ulysses Unbound (2000), Elster considers situations where an actor would benefit from “self-binding” (constraining one’s own behavior) and devices that are used to accomplish this. In other words, the topic is commitment problems and commitment devices — an important theme in political science research over the past couple of decades.
Before I get to the more political aspects of Elster’s work, I want to explicate his discussion of reasons for self-binding, which helped me to see political commitment problems in a somewhat broader perspective.
In another blog post, I’ve talked about the idea that emotions can provide the corrective to rational self-interest: they impose costs and benefits that make otherwise non-credible threats and promises credible. In most cases, however, the passions are the enemy of self-interest, or at least one conception of self-interest. By passions, Elster refers to “emotions proper” (like anger, shame, fear) but also “states” such as drunkenness, sexual desire, or cravings for addictive drugs. The idea here is that these passions can take over and dominate our behavior in self-destructive ways. The clearest example is “blind anger” that leads someone to lash out in ways that he or she will certainly later regret. The discussion here focuses on clarifying the different ways in which passions can lead to self-destructive behavior, and corresponding attempts to “pre-commit” i.e. take actions that will minimize the self-destructive behavior. For example, if the passion is not too strong, it may be sufficient to take measures that will make the self-destructive behavior more costly, such as bringing one’s wife to a party to prevent oneself from getting too drunk or flirting with coworkers. If the passion is so strong that one practically ignores all other considerations and will act self-destructively no matter the cost, then one may need to take steps to avoid the passion entirely, such as not going to the office party. In I.7 Elster addresses these issues in the context of addiction, which is a particular form of passion (leading to self-destruction), in response to which addicts have developed various commitment strategies, with varying success.
Another key commitment problem discussed in Ulysses Unbound is the time inconsistency produced by hyperbolic discounting. The basic idea here is that actors may discount future payoffs in a way that leads to inconsistent action over time: given the choice between a big payoff in two years and an even bigger one in three years, I may prefer to wait longer for the bigger payoff when I think about it today, but not when I reconsider in a year. (This kind of inconsistency, which apparently helps to explain procrastination and suboptimal saving behavior, is ruled out by the standard exponential discounting but is consistent with hyperbolic discounting.) This creates a conflict within the self: today’s self wants to constrain tomorrow’s self. Although Elster does not emphasize this point, the intertemporal conflict created by hyperbolic discounting is clearly analogous to the conflict caused by passions: discounting-based time inconsistency can be thought of, it seems, as a kind of predictable passion that strikes when payoffs become more immediate.
The last reason for pre-commitment Elster considers is anticipated preference change. The idea is that one can anticipate that one’s preferences will change with time, and that one may want to guard oneself against this happening. In the Russian nobleman example provided (and drawn from Derek Parfit), this happens because the current self feels at odds with the anticipated future self: the politically radical young self anticipates that he will become more conservative in the future, so he may want to fight the future self by e.g. giving his resources to radical political causes before his future self can give those resources to conservative political causes. A slightly different phenomenon is highlighted by the Amish and other cultural groups (Islamists, Confucians) that take steps to prevent preference change by shielding themselves from information about competing lifestyles — what Elster calls “self-paternalism.” These examples differ somewhat in that the current “self” does not seek to undermine the future self, with whom it feels in conflict, but rather the current self and the future self have the same interest in preventing preference changes that presumably would lead to the future self being less happy.