Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I Love Big Nanny
"The dignity of man is not shattered in a single blow, but slowly softened,
bent, and eventually neutered. Men are seldom forced to act, but are
constantly restrained from acting. Such power does not destroy outright,
but prevents genuine existence. It does not tyrannize immediately, but it
dampens, weakens, and ultimately suffocates, until the entire population
is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid, uninspired animals, of
which the government is shepherd."
Alexis de Tocqueville
The nanny-statists are at it again, led by "behavioral economist" Cass Sunstein, Obama's erstwhile regulatory czar. Dressed in his best Mary Poppins outfit, merrily humming "A Spoonful of Sugar," he's busy advocating the oxymoronic philosophy of "libertarian paternalism" in such notably libertarian outlets as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. Echoed by columnists like David Brooks, most recently in the Aug. 12 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the basic idea in this latest metamorphosis of Progressive philosophy
is that people shouldn't be forced into doing what some philosopher-king thinks is good for them (i.e. "ends paternalism.") Rather, they should be "nudged" via subtle manipulations based on what research shows are the normal flaws and shortcuts in their judgement processes (i.e. "means paternalism.") In essence, he argues that government should do what advertisers, chain retailers, internet providers and other commercial interests do already. For instance, food stores create displays at the end of aisles, knowing that shoppers see these as reduced-price displays and often don't bother to check the actual cost. Likewise, people are often required to "opt out" of contract provisions rather than being given the opportunity to add them, which inspires more thought. You get the idea, and if you want more details the links above will let you opt in.
On the surface this approach seems innocuous, even benevolent. That's what you're being nudged to think. The framing of a manipulative policy with an adjective implying freedom is evidence of that. Let's do a little systematic thinking:
Sunstein and his cohorts are engaging in a common academic practice, presenting one-sided and exaggerated data. The research they cite is from the "heuristics and biases" literature, popular among professors because its conclusions are that ordinary people aren't too thoughtful (versus professors) and because the results were, originally, counterintuitive. Essentially the argument is that people use shortcuts and estimates when making judgements. These then differ from what economists have defined as "rationality," making them flawed.
There are at least four problems with this line of reasoning. First, the original research on which these statements depend is entirely laboratory-based, using undergraduates to make judgements about things with which they have little personal involvement. Even studies of actual shoppers concern minor purchases, things that prompt minimal thought at best. Furthermore, the size of the effects---the difference the manipulations make in behavior---is small, though statistically reliable.
Second, Sunstein and friends ignore an entire domain of contrary research showing that the shortcuts they deplore are actually useful and efficient in everyday life. If one takes an evolutionary perspective this isn't surprising, but since the paternalists are committed to their intelligent design position the last thing they want to hear about is the beauty of natural selection.
Intelligent design requires designers and administrators, and that's the next big problem. Who gets to design and run the "libertarian paternalist" system? One guess. Now---what is the goal of these designers and administrators? Throughout history, there have been two:
power and money. Of course, they're really the same, because if you have one you have the other. Governments and bureaucrats always want more power, more influence. It's how they grow, and the fortunes of each member are tied to that growth. So there's always more to be done, more problems to solve, and that requires more people, more money, more regulations
that give rise to more status.
Then there's the interesting question of what you nudge people to do. Even if we make the Pollyanna-class assumption of honest selflessness on the part of academics, legislators, executives elected or appointed, bureaucrats and so forth, what makes anyone think they'll know? For instance, tobacco used to be a minor vice; now it's the Devil's weed. Marijuana is fast becoming the recreational drug of the future, a harmless happy pastime rather than the gateway to lifelong addiction and degradation it was in the 1950's. Obesity is the new health menace, replacing anorexia and bulimia. Today's automobile is the carbon-belching destroyer of the environment that enables deadly urban sprawl. It used to be a source of personal freedom and an industrial mainstay of middle-class prosperity.
That Sunstein and his faux-libertarian friends are fundamentally totalitarian is revealed, finally, by their academic cherrypicking. If they were interested in promoting freedom and human welfare they'd be asking how government might promote active, thoughtful deliberation where that would actually be helpful. We know ways to overcome harmful biases, to defeat manipulation, to make judgements as good as they can be given fallible information and a changing world. Yet all these self-appointed saviors can do is substitute manipulation by government for that of other self-interested organizations. And, let's not forget, government claims a monopoly on the use of force. What do you suppose happens when psychological nudges prove ineffective? Nudging with bayonets is crude, to be sure, but we'll have Sunstein to remind us that it's for our own good.