Nudging -- with a Gun

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Via Arts and Letters Daily is an article about a pair of academics enjoying their day in the sun as proponents of the latest rage in political philosophy (and trauma care), libertarian paternalism. I've commented on this idea before.

What this article caused me to think about was how difficult endemic confusions about the nature of capitalism and the purpose of government make it even to intelligently discuss many valid discoveries and ideas unearthed by academics.

For example, the following is a really clever way to increase the safety of certain stretches of road:

"You see that?" Richard H. Thaler asks as we ride down picturesque Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Thaler knows the route well. He travels it every day on his commute home from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where he is a professor of behavioral science and economics. At the moment, he is excitedly jabbing his finger toward an approaching curve in the road, telling me that it is the scene of numerous accidents caused by drivers who fail to sufficiently reduce their speed. Then he directs my attention to a grid of lines that appear on the road ahead of us: Evenly spaced at first, as we near the apex of the curve, the lines begin to bunch closer together, which makes us feel like we are speeding up.

As Thaler taps the brakes and gently steers into the bend, he explains how the tightly spaced lines trigger an instinct [sic] that causes drivers to slow down. With evident glee, he notes that Chicago is effectively exploiting -- to society's [sic] benefit -- one of the many ways in which human perception is flawed. Or, as Thaler puts it, drivers are being "nudged" toward safety. [bold added]
For the sake of argument, I merely note before going on with this that man does not possess instincts and that the notion of "benefit" cannot apply to "society", except as a collection of individual men.

The interesting thing here is that this creative use of road markings really is a good idea, and it would likely see legitimate use in a fully free society -- by private firms interested in lowering their liability for automobile accidents on the roads they own or operate and, perhaps, improving their reputation for building and maintaining safe roads.

Unfortunately, everyone is so used to the government owning the roads, and so used to it often footing medical bills that few so much as bat an eye when they hear of the government looking for ways to psychologically manipulate people into doing its bidding. Indeed, in this limited context, it is hard to argue productively against the government taking advantage of such knowledge about human perception.

But more unfortunately, the fact remains that the fundamental nature of the government is that it is the social institution that possesses the sole monopoly on the use of force. This is proper, when the government is delimited to its only legitimate role, protecting individual rights. Sadly, the government has progressively moved away from its proper function over the last few decades.

It is bad enough that the government owns and operates basically all the roads. It is worse that we also have longstanding precedents of it dictating how we are to dispose of our own property and live our own lives, because these precedents are being subordinated to how various busybodies who would substitute their judgement for our own would have us live our lives.

The article puts this attitude too perfectly not to quote it:
[Libertarian paternalism] is a corrective to the longstanding assumption of policy makers that the average person is capable of thinking like Albert Einstein, storing as much memory as IBM's Big Blue, and exercising the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi. That is simply not how people are, they say. In reality human beings are lazy, busy, impulsive, inert, and irrational creatures highly susceptible to predictable biases and errors. That's why they can be nudged in socially desirable directions. [bold added]
This is even more insulting than an argument Ayn Rand rightfully slammed some "pro-capitalists" for making in "defense" of capitalism: that we aren't good enough for a dictatorship!
This leads us to the third -- and the worst -- argument, used by some "conservatives": the attempt to defend capitalism on the ground of man's depravity.

This argument runs as follows: since men are weak, fallible, non-omniscient and innately depraved, no man may be entrusted with the responsibility of being a dictator and of ruling everybody else; therefore, a free society is the proper way of life for imperfect creatures. Please grasp fully the implications of this argument: since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state. ("Conservatism: An Obituary", in Capitalism:The Unknown Ideal, pp. 198-199)
Whatever the libertarian paternalists think -- if they do -- of man's moral stature, they clearly regard man as too stupid for freedom.

And so if individuals can't be left up to charting their own courses, what might a "socially desirable" direction look like? No surprise here:
What does a peculiar pattern on the road have to do with fixing the nation's health-care woes, protecting the environment, ... and increasing donations to charity?
Ideally, nothing. Except that the premise that the government should run everything is taken as an unquestioned axiom by so many today. In other words, these velvet-gloved pragmatists are helping the Left achieve what they have been trying to do for decades, but have failed to accomplish every time they have been open about it: Have the government run every aspect of our lives. This is made to look good by such things as the road-striping cited above, which distracts many from the fact -- if they have an inkling of it -- that the government running everything is, ultimately, detrimental to the survival of man as the rational animal.

It will come as no surprise that our featured libertarian paternalists are advising the far-left Obama campaign.

Regardless of how unobtrusive-seeming libertarian paternalists manage to make government interference in our lives, the fact remains that the government has no business eliminating our choices (as it does under medical experiments being conducted without patient consent in America), dictating our choices (as it does under certain "opt-out" organ donation schemes in Europe) or "nudging" us towards any kind of behavior at all.

The purpose of the government is to protect us from having our choices removed by other people, not to violate our rights by doing just that, through stealth or otherwise.

-- CAV


C. August said...

Good old Thaler and Sunstein. You can find my opinion of them in a comment I wrote to my post on the MA smoking ban. The Boston Globe ran an article on their libertarian paternalism. I'm including an excerpt of the article and my comment below.

From the Globe:
Simply giving people more choices, therefore - whether it's among healthcare plans, pension plans, or schools - is no assurance that they'll make the best choice.

So libertarian paternalists like Thaler and Sunstein argue there's a real need for someone to step in and guide us. But they do not hold the traditional liberal belief that a wise government mandate is the best kind of social policy...

Hence Thaler and Sunstein's faith in choice architecture.

... in realms such as retirement savings, healthcare, and organ donation, the government is already setting defaults. It makes sense, say proponents, to set those options intelligently...


And my abridged comment:
...this insidiously bland language ... takes the same core philosophy -- that individuals need to be guided by the state against their will for the purpose of the moment -- and just coats it in grease, sugar, and the distraction of complexity so it slides down our throats without us even noticing.

There's something about this topic that just makes me seethe with rage. I seriously can feel my blood pressure going up when I think about it or read what Thaler has to say.

This also reminds me of the new field of "behavioral economics" and its most prominent supporter, Dan Ariely. The title of his book says it all -- "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions." His pseudoscience studies are exactly the type of junk that Thaler would use to support his terrible ideas.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for posting that here! I liked your post on the smoking ban, but had forgotten that you (or I, for that matter) had mentioned Thaler before.

That first paragraph from the Globe really ticks me off. I think it's the whole "We think you're an idiot, so we're going to look out for by bossing you around -- and since it's for your own good, you shouldn't say anything against it." that does it.

This whole insulting appeal is to what they feel you should think of as your own self-interest -- and yet at the same time, they claim brownie points for altruism.

Ugh! It's not just coercive. It's disgusting.