Ends and Means

Cass Sunstein writes,

In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Sunstein later writes,

Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”

Then there is this:

Because hers is a paternalism of means rather than ends, she would not authorize government to stamp out sin (as, for example, by forbidding certain forms of sexual behavior) or otherwise direct people to follow official views about what a good life entails. She wants government to act to overcome cognitive errors while respecting people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values.

Try to imagine a dialog between Conly and Michael Huemer (or another libertarian).

Libertarian: if a random stranger came to you and forcibly stopped you from drinking a large soda “for your own good,” would you find that acceptable? I would accept advice from a stranger. I might accept forcible restraint from a friend or someone to whom I had given permission to restrain my impulses (like Odysseus with the Sirens). However, why should I want government officials to interfere with my decisions because of my supposed incompetence?

Conly: Government officials are not random strangers. They are experts. That is why the should be allowed to interfere with your decision.

Libertarian: I listen to experts all the time. But what makes government officials so wonderfully expert that I should be forced to listen to them? When it comes to “staying out of debt” and “saving for the future,” are government officials the experts to whom you would have me defer? Seriously?

Maybe someone can help me be more charitable here.

12 thoughts on “Ends and Means

  1. If a buffet replaced their plates with smaller ones for your own good, would you find that acceptable? Most officials probably could give you good advice. That they have problems collectively reflects on political realities more than knowledge. Elected officials would probably be worse than appointed ones, though the political process is even degrading the appointive process these days.

  2. Two responses:

    1. Rights-constrained democracies, over time, tend towards proper regulation. The relative ease with which majorities can effect change tends to undermine rent seeking (not totally) and promote policy that is good (not optimal) for most people. Strong human rights cultures keep those policies from being too brutal. In the end government does work better (in some states) than random strangers.

    2. If someone walked up to you, held a gun to your head, and told you they thought you had stolen their car and were now going to kidnap and incarcerate you until they worked out whether you did, would you tolerate that behavior if you were innocent? I would argue that the same line of questioning you use to reject paternalism, if it is valid, would lead me and lots of others to reject minarchy.

  3. Wophugus: “good for most people” is a good description of what you get if you make every decision by majority vote.

    As such, the test of a good society is how it treats legitimate minorities. As a simple example, what about homosexuals? What about pot smokers? Outlawing both behaviors would lead to a state that is good for most people.

  4. Which is why the most succesful democracies are either rights constrained with a culture of acceptance and human rights promotion or else pretty homogenous or else both. Anyways, the question isn’t “do democracies have flaws,” it is “is a paternalistic government more trustworthy than a paternalistic stranger.” My answer is “For the right kind of government, in societies with the right kind of social norms, yes.” That is why both libertarians and welfare state types are more willing to trust government than strangers (in my example, more willing to trust government with the option to use force when investigating property crimes): good government is more trustworthy.

  5. I think the huge error in all of this is that the “experts” will tend to pursue goals that serve political interests (if we were all less fat there would be lower health care costs, at least for a while, which would make their budget balancing easier)

    But those interests are rarely of interest to people. Many “bad” choices are actually good choices for the total-value-of-life-lived.

    Likewise, some choices that suit stable governments may not suit the long or even medium term interests of their nation, or of humanity.

    And finally, a recurring error is the idea that “people who do A are well off, we’ll get everybody to do A so everybody will be better off” – failing to realize that a large part of being “Better off” is doing things other people don’t. So if everybody is of ideal body weight, then all social focus will switch to something else, and the social elite will be no bigger than it is now.

  6. First let me say that I believe paternalism is a necessarily evil of modern society in which we cannot internalize all the destructive externalities of individual behavior. And yet, I find libertarian paternalism or ‘nudges’ even worse than out-in-the-open paternalism. First it’s more costly (individual choice does not come cheap) and yet it’s a mirage of choice (you are guided to decision). So I agree with skepticism in the post.

    Now here’s the push back…many people want experts to help them make complex life decisions. I understand that SSA gets lots of requests for retirement planning / timing advice that they can’t really give. I think people are generally pretty honest about their decision-making shortcomings. The idea that the free market will lead people to always make choices in their best interest is ludicrous, but I am not convinced that ‘experts’ should just be making those decisions for them. I am disturbed at how anti-education many Sunstein’s collaborators are…some decisions may simply be too hard for some people, but I think there’s still much scope to better engage individuals, not just the experts.

  7. I wish behavioral psychologists would apply their behavioral findings to political institutions, voter psychology, and public officials and then re-assess their own “choice architecture” which they create in their rhetoric.

  8. “Experience is a dear teacher, and only fools will learn from no other.” Ben Franklin

    If mistakes are not made, and consequences are not felt, who can learn? Only the wise. The government insults all of us when they treat us as fools. Further, by softening the consequences of mistakes, the government makes education more difficult for the wise because there are fewer bad examples.

    If one individual makes a mistake, many might suffer, but when the government makes a mistake, and enforces it, many, many more suffer.

  9. Humans are bad choosers for themselves. Humans are especially bad choosers for other people. Why Conly thinks government can overcome my cognitive errors better than I can is a mystery to me.

  10. It’d be interesting to track down the intellectual history of when it was exactly that someone successfully got away with the verbal trick of replacing “problems with discipline, self-control, will-power, etc.” (which everybody understands) with “cognitive errors,” or perhaps, “low time horizon.” Do people really believe that overeating, spendthriftness, sexual indiscretion, etc. have more to do with mistaken thinking than simple human desire?

    Let’s contemplate the core paternalism scenario, that is, actually being a parent making decisions on behalf on one’s child and even substituting one’s own judgment for that of the child’s when there is a disagreement on the “best” course of of action.

    We empower, and even insist that, parents, guardians, custodians, etc. perform this function (to age 21 for some activities) because of the young (or other “incompetent”) individual’s ignorance, naivete, lack of education, experience and cognitive capacity, short-sightedness, under-development of the reasoning ability, incomplete molding of character, impulsiveness, susceptibility to temptation and destructive social pressures, and tendency to be overwhelmed by their powerful emotions and hormones.

    We therefore contrast childishness with maturity (distinct from intellect), and we endeavor to gradually introduce a maturing individual to increasing degrees of sovereignty over himself appropriate to his progress in self-mastery, the rest being reserved to the paternalistic authority in his life.

    Now, we can talk about what we do legally, or politically: various heuristics, shortcuts, and rough approximations where we deem an individual to be either unready or emancipated as a function of age. There are various advantages to this in terms of the administration of government consistent with egalitarian ideology. But in reality different individuals come to widely diverse degrees of maturity at different ages. Some are precocious, while others remain childish for life. And culture and education play an important and under-emphasized role in encouraging discipline in general.

    A way of reframing the question with regards to policy is whether the government should act as paternalist for childish adults, and if so how. A lot of the absurdity and talking-past-each-other of these discussions is that the unspoken assumption is that we must treat all individuals the same, regardless of their level of maturity. No “means test” for adulthood, besides raw age. Intelligent, mature, and competent adults chafe as restrictions unnecessarily placed upon them, but meant primarily to benefit their more childish peers.

  11. To be more charitable the Libertarian should say: I listen to experts all the time, however government officials have the power to force people whereas strangers, friends, and family must persuade me unless i consent to their use of forceful constraint. When government officials use force they “oppress” me and my free will, which makes me more of an “indentured servant” to their wishes than a freeman.