Libertarian paternalism, or: Gov’t out of my idiocy!

Here in this article is the future of political conflict. “Libertarian paternalism” against a theory of human existence based on the supremacy of reason and rational choice. Choose your sides now.

A bit of background:

In the economics world, behavioral economics is aimed at looking at how people actually make choices, instead of assuming that everybody has excellent information about the given state of markets and the future consequences of their options, and will choose what’s best for them, given their preferences.

In most experiments (and in anybody’s experience of real life) it turns out that people don’t always act to maximize their interests. We make stupid choices. We discount future gains too heavily. We smoke, drink, do drugs, party, don’t exercise, watch porn, drop out of school, quit our jobs and move to Europe to be writers in dying mediums. Null point pour les neoclassicism.

In this writer’s mind, and in others, the gropings of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are linked to behavioral economics, insofar as they chip away at the traditional foundations of the human spirit. These former two semi-disciplines, or intellectual movements, are aimed at grounding elements of our behavior, personalities, and perhaps cultures in our biology. Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate is an excellent primer on these ideas: In a nutshell, we are built initially from genetic instructions. This includes our brains, and our various neurochemical and hormonal eccentricities. These differences, from the very beginning, have consequences – some of us learn faster or slower in certain areas, some are fatter or skinnier (which has societal (but not deterministic) consequences), some are excellent athletes, some can swim through mathematics as though numbers are the sea and they dolphins. We are different from one another, mentally, physically, in every way that has anything to do with genes — and it makes more sense to understand this rather than pretend we start as identical beings, and grow apart.

So. We’re different. We’re not perfectly rational. Wolfe argues that these ideas are chipping away at the heart of old-style liberalism, the idea that we can and should choose our destinies for ourselves, with the minimum amount of interference from outside (with certain necessary caveats that increase the collective amount of autonomy available, such as: no, you can’t own slaves, asshole).

I think there are a few problems with this. I don’t think he gets evolutionary psychology or behavioral economics all that well. As many critics of these disciplines do, he confuses predispositions and statistical likelihoods with a kind of predetermination

(Christians and sociobiologists) both believe in predestination.  For the one we are stained with sin.  For the other we are products of our genetic makeup.  In neither case can we change our destiny.

This statement is bollocks. Sociobiologists (at least good ones) believe that we have constraints on our personalities and capabilities, just as we have constraints on our physical abilities. This isn’t a popular notion, particularly in America, but it is very, very far from the idea of predestination.  (I have these genes, thus I am more likely than someone who does not to express them by acting more aggressively than the norm; *not*: I have these genes, so I will be a rapist).

What Wolfe is really attacking, however, is the idea of the new “libertarian paternalists” that want to help us overcome our irrationalities by “nudging” our choices. Putting their fingers on the scales. It’s not really a new idea – we’ve tried to influence people’s consumption choices through things like “sin taxes” for years. But it, or this explanation for old behavior, is gaining ground as we see the very wide areas in which we don’t choose rationally.

….people should neither be left completely free to do what they want nor should they be coerced by government.  Instead their choices should be constrained by organizing them according to design principles that will produce the optimum outcome for themselves and their society.  Thaler and Sunstein call such design a form of “choice architecture.”… The goal of the behavioral economists is to give people choices over how much to save for their retirement or to recycle their trash, but to design the choices in ways that will overcome the irrationality and ignorance that shape individual decisions.

So: Sin taxes. Gas taxes, to lower people’s carbon production and push them to public transit (which they like in theory, but don’t do enough on their own). Anti-smoking campaigns. Anti-obesity campaigns. Structuring tax breaks so the benefits come in chunks, rather than all at once, so we are more likely to spend the money instead of save it.

These “choice architects” are undemocratically screwing with the way we as supposedly rational people are choosing, Wolfe argues. He seems to be disputing the idea that we are fundamentally irrational; believing, perhaps, that despite the evidence, it is better that we continue acting (as policymakers and as humans) as if we were perfectly rational, rather than accepting that we are not and working to ameliorate the consequences.

Who nudges, is his ultimate question. Who is elitist enough to decide what’s “best” for us, and structure our alternatives so we are more likely to choose well. Which, fair enough, it is never a pleasant idea to hear from the government that: This is the best for you. Despite your stupid desire to eat fatty foods, smoke, etc., we simply won’t let you. (Or wait, maybe that sounds suspiciously familiar. Something about drugs, alcohol, speed limits, dress codes, hate speech prohibitions…)

We don’t like people trying to affect our supposedly free choices. We want the government out of our heads. So we leave the space wide open for psychologically sophisticated marketers, I suppose…

Wolfe’s argument fundamentally hangs on the idea of transparency. He argues that the construction of “choice architecture” can not be transparent. I see no reason why this should be the case. We have always had policy goals, which amount to ideas about how society should look. These policy goals are developed by the government and its advisors. The government is elected. We have the ability to write about and criticize the government.

So, yes, I think Wolfe is wrong. But I do think this debate about human nature will structure the political debates of the future. Are we rational or are we not? Are we identical in every way or are we not? It will be important to remember that “all men are created equal” is poor science (Men? Created? Equal? Really?); however, as a political statement meaning that every person should be given equal rights, or should be given roughly equal opportunities (two very different ideas), it remains extraordinarily powerful.

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed this. Behavioral Economics is snarky name for what’s essentially a psychological critique of classical economics, which still claims to track “rational” human behavior. All goes to show that econ is just as much a “fuzzy” social science as a “hard” natural one like, say, biology or physics. But goodness knows classical econ is overdue for a good critique or three these days. Have you seen The Trap?

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