The Systems Fallacy

The Perils of Systems Analysis, Past and Present (From Operations Research to Contemporary Cost-Benefit Analysis)

Date: 
Mon, 09/26/2016
Location: 
301 Marx Hall
Audience: 
Public


Please join us for the first LAPA Seminar of the year, with Bernard Harcourt, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia University.

LAPA’s seminar format assumes that seminar participants have familiarized themselves with the paper in advance. The commentator opens the session by summarizing the main themes in the paper and presenting some topics for discussion. The author then has the right of first response before we open to the floor for questions. The seminar will end with a brief reception, giving everyone a chance to mingle and meet.

Abstract:  At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a decision-making technique called Systems Analysis was perfected and began to be applied broadly from matters of national defense strategy to government policy to criminal justice. The turn to systems analysis has been deeply consequential in the field of law and public policy, and is essentially responsible for the dominant role that cost-benefit analysis plays today throughout the administrative state. A close examination of the attempt to extend the use of systems models from the narrow military domain to the broader public policy context, however, reveals a recurring problem centered on the choice of scope of the analysis. I call this “The Systems Fallacy” and I demonstrate it in this essay.

Bernard E. Harcourt
Columbia University

Bernard E. Harcourt is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia University, and Directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is a visiting professor this year in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He works in the area of contemporary critical thought, with a focus on punishment, legal and political theory. He is the author, most recently, of Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (Harvard 2015) and The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order (Harvard 2011). He is also the editor of several of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, including La Société punitive (Gallimard 2013) and Theories et institutions pénales (Gallimard 2015).