Yousefzadeh Strikes Out Again!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Via Glenn Reynolds, I have learned of a new threat to individual rights which is being compounded by yet another poor rebuttal by the Libertarians, who seem to have adopted the liberal penchant for hyphenation of late. They seem to prefer to be called "libertarian-conservatives." Most of my readers already know what I think about political correctness, especially coming from those who are so incorrect about politics. In any event, I find myself confronted with another editorial by that political "battered wife" of the religious right, Pejman Yousefzadeh.

Apparently, there is a "new" political movement afoot called "libertarian paternalism" which favors the imposition of government force into the personal lives of ordinary citizens. The alleged novelty of this new theory of public policy isn't that it involves the abuse of the government's monopoly on the use of force. That's something all of them have in common but laissez-faire capitalism. The novelty, as always, is that some ivory tower geniuses like Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University, have come up with a new excuse for the government to impose force. As this redoubtable intellectual giantess puts it, "More choice can be worse than less choice." Worse -- to whom? And if it's worse to me, isn't that my problem?

According to the New York Times article, a whole raft of "empirical studies" shows that -- surprise -- under some circumstances, some people can't make up their minds!

But empirical studies have found that people, regardless of intelligence, do not always choose well. Often they prefer to let inertia take over, unable or unwilling to choose for themselves [italics mine].

For instance, participation rates in 401(k) plans are known to rise sharply when the default choice for the employee is switched to an opt-out from an opt-in.

In Sweden, where personal savings accounts were carved out of the social security system in 1998, 9 out of 10 new entrants to the work force let their investment portfolio go to a default fund set up by the government, instead of choosing one themselves.

Too many options may drive consumers away [italics mine]. In one experiment, Ms. Iyengar found that people who were shown a selection of six different jams in a store were about 10 times as likely to buy a jar than those exposed to a range of 24 flavors.

In another study, she found that people who chose one chocolate from a selection of 30 expressed more regret and uncertainty about their decision than those who chose among six kinds. That's because with 29 other options, there is a bigger chance of losing out on something better.

Of course, lack of choice will also inhibit people. When Ms. Iyengar gave undergraduate students $10 and the option to spend it right away or invest it, only 6 percent of them chose to invest when the professor decided the asset allocation.

The key is whether people understand their choices, said Richard H. Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago. "People have to know what their preferences are and they have to know how the options they have map onto their preferences," he said.

This might be easy when choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. But it gets progressively more difficult as the number of flavors increases. When the risks are high and the decisions complex - as when choosing between medical procedures or investment portfolios - consumers may become easily flummoxed.

Now, suppose that you are an academic researcher. And suppose I were to tell you to put on your thinking cap. Suppose further that you conducted one of these studies. What conclusion would you draw from the fact that some people are remarkably inept at selecting an investment portfolio? Here's what some academics came up with.

Mr. Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School suggested that it is proper for the government, or an employer, to set boundaries to choice to achieve desired social objectives, an approach they call "libertarian paternalism."
Yes. That is a point you feel on the top of your "academic thinking cap!" But I am being a little harsh. Sadly, government interference in every aspect of our lives is obscenely commonplace and the meaning of the word "capitalism" is all but lost. You can't necessarily blame Thaler and Sunstein for expanding their recommendations to include what the government ought to do. What they find makes sense -- to a company that wishes to offer its employees a choice of benefits or, in our mixed economy, to a government entity behaving like a legitimate business.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning doesn't stop there. Are you an organ donor? In America, if you don't know, then you aren't, and you needn't worry about being "harvested" a little too quickly should you get into, say, a bad traffic accident. That could change if this approach gains much traction.

Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein, co-director and associate director, respectively, of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University, found that big majorities of Americans approve of organ donations, yet only about a quarter consent to donate their own. Meanwhile, nearly all Austrians, French and Portuguese consent to donate theirs. The difference? In the United States people must opt to become an organ donor. In much of Europe, people must actively choose not to donate. So if organ donation is considered a social good, American defaults could just be flipped around [italics mine].
A "social good?" American defaults could "just" be flipped around? That's my body, asshole, and possibly my life you're talking about like it's a damned toggle switch! Whether I part myself out is up to me. The "difference" between the United States and "parts of Europe" is not so much that "the defaults" are different, but why they are different: In the United States, the government is designed to protect individual rights by default, not infringe upon them. The argument against the government applying "libertarian paternalism" in cases like this, and in getting it away from more benign instances like the one I cited above, is that the government should respect individual rights.

Those last two words are entirely missing from the Yousefzadeh "rebuttal" to this latest collectivist fad. In fact, even the bare word, "rights" is missing from the piece! This is too bad, because Yousefzadeh does make a decent point about how this idea can be used to take ideas like school choice and social security reform off the table. No. I take that back. In today's political climate, neither school choice nor social security reform are being debated on the right terms. When is the last time you heard someone even bring up the idea of eventually abolishing public education? Or social security? This might be because no one is making the case that both violate individual rights. If that were going on, it would take more than some silly fad like libertarian paternalism to sidetrack the debate.

But the conspicuous absence of this small phrase manifests itself in other ways. Yousefzadeh makes a good entree with his Mencken quote, but he misses the fact that this "new" trend he has spotted is in fact an old enemy! From the Puritans of colonial times to the religious right of today, haven't we had people agitating for religiously-inspired government restrictions of our ability to choose, say, to work on Sunday? Or to watch what we want on television? You could grant him that this is beyond the scope of the article, but I can't help wondering whether his failure to note this obvious similarity might stem from the battered wife syndrome he exhibits around his staunch capitalist allies of the theocratic persuasion.

His failure to bring up individual rights also hinders him from delivering a good blow against "libertarian paternalism." Rather than slam the idea on the grounds I did above, his objections sound nit-picky and unserious by comparison. Let's consider a couple. First, it really seems to bother Yousefzadeh that these heathens are using the term "libertarian" in vain more so than the fact that they advocate further government violations of our rights.

It takes an incredible amount of chutzpah to advocate this kind of anti-choice movement while claiming that there is anything "libertarian" about it. On the contrary, the program that Thaler advocates is the very antithesis of the libertarian-conservative belief that consumers deserve to have as wide a variety of options available to them as possible.

On what basis do, "consumers deserve to have as wide a variety of options available to them as possible?" No answer. What if Pope Benedict XVI issues an encyclical saying that the human race should be "free" from the distractions of materialism, and that only then would their choices in the spiritual realm open up? Shouldn't consumers have freedom where it really counts? And might our proliferation of choices result in resources being diverted from the third world, giving those "consumers" fewer choices? Does this bother Yousefzadeh? Should it? You can't even begin to hope to address objections like these without some reference to the rights of these individuals to their lives, liberty, and property. (And then you need to be ready to intellectually defend that, something I've already noted is not a priority for Yousefzadeh.)

And then there's this nightmare scenario, with which Yousefzadeh ends his piece.
And the depressing thing is that one can probably expect even more of this "libertarian paternalism" to pervade our social and political discourse, as amazingly, we actually have to fight to continue to be able to have access to the many choices that are (for now, anyway) available to us in a Wal-Mart, in our 401(k) plans and in our jam-purchasing forays.
Oh, dear God above! I may have to fight to be able to stare numbly at an entire aisle of deodorant when all I want is a freakin' stick of Arrid! This is all he can come up with? These are all certainly things the government has no business screwing around with, but Yousefzadeh's willful ignorance or omission of individual rights takes away a lot of punch. Consider his example of the 401(k) for retirement. Were it not for the IRS reducing our financial choices -- by confiscating our money -- there might be no such animal, as we would have no need to jump through bureaucratic hoops to protect our own money (and up to a maximum limit at that) just to invest it. An essay that pointed out how all government intervention in the economy ultimately ends up "limiting our choices" would have been much better than this one, which focussed on what should have merely been a point of departure: the "libertarian paternalism" fad.

A weak objection of libertarian paternalism would be one thing, but an objection that discredits capitalism is worse than a total failure to object at all. Yousefzadeh really blows it here.
[I]t is a fundamental tenet of those arguing for greater government intervention in our lives that if an anti-government [emphasis added] theory does not work perfectly in practice, it does not work at all and government intervention must take place.
So those of us who oppose "libertarian paternalism" advocate an "anti-government" theory?!?!? I don't. Does the recognition that one must have a government (You know, to protect those pesky individual rights thingies Yousefzadeh keeps trying to sweep under the rug.), mean that one must necessarily accept libertarian paternalism? Our choice is anarchy or paternalism? If you read this editorial, you might incorrectly leave with that impression.

At any rate, when you don't see the theoretical connection between your individual rights and the ability to grouse about a deodorant purchase, you will fail to appreciate what a miracle the latter is. You fill find the idea of fighting for it ridiculous. And so you won't fight for it. And you will lose it -- and much more.

With "defenders of liberty" like these, who needs "libertarian paternalists?"

-- CAV

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