Paternalists vs. Nudging

Monday, November 14, 2011

Over at Slate is an article that objects to the "libertarian paternalism" of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein on paternalistic grounds. Like so many economic critiques of more traditional government economic interventions that avoid (or assume common answers to) moral questions, the critique raises some good points, like this one:

This points to the key problem with "nudge"-style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want [or need -- ed] better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable. [bold added]
But whatever value these points might have is compromised by the unquestioned assumptions that motivate both the libertarian paternalists and the authors:
All this suggests democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people's real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well. [bold added]
Democracy? Regarding personal decisions? How about reason? And why aren't we questioning the premise that the government should be dictating things like how I plan for retirement, or whether I donate (or sell, or keep) my (own) organs? More to the point, since when have all my decisions become a communal affair?

Since many commonly-accepted communal "public policy" goals happen to align with self-interest (or conceivably could, under some circumstances), it can be worthwhile to learn that, even as a method of achieving these goals, libertarian paternalism fails. Nevertheless, so does such an analysis, on the more fundamental, unexamined level, as we see in this very piece:
However natural, though, this won't work because libertarian paternalists are often wrong on the underlying social science. For example, Thaler and Sunstein's claims about the benefits of opt-out schemes are belied by little evidence it increases donations. According to Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University differences in donation rates are better explained by differences in organizational effectiveness than differences in opt-in/opt-out. It is not clear that opt-out would increase donations; unsexy but crucial reforms to regional schemes would almost certainly work better. [bold added]
So the government won't force me to dispose of my organs in a certain way? By these lights, it still will, but the exact means will be different. That's exactly the result when questions like, "Works? For whom and for what purpose?" Go unasked.

As someone who opposes all forms of government paternalism, I welcome the knowledge that there is plenty of room to question the effectiveness of libertarian paternalistic schemes, but I will not fall into the trap of opposing them merely on such grounds. I want nothing that will permit the government to order me around more effectively to "work."

-- CAV

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