Ann Althouse (my mom) sums up Cass Sunstein's review of a book called Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, by Sarah Conly:
Sunstein refers to social science research that shows people actually aren't very good at making decisions for themselves. We have "present bias" (and don't pay enough attention to the future), we're bad at assessing probability, and we're "unrealistically optimistic."Sunstein writes:
Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. ...Sunstein has several good objections to this theory:
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.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds....
Conly insists that mandates and bans can be much more effective than mere nudges. If the benefits justify the costs, she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so.
Conly is right to insist that no democratic government can or should live entirely within Mill’s strictures. But in my view, she underestimates the possibility that once all benefits and all costs are considered, we will generally be drawn to approaches that preserve freedom of choice. One reason involves the bluntness of coercive paternalism and the sheer diversity of people’s tastes and situations. Some of us care a great deal about the future, while others focus intensely on today and tomorrow. This difference may make perfect sense in light not of some bias toward the present, but of people’s different economic situations, ages, and valuations. Some people eat a lot more than others, and the reason may not be an absence of willpower or a neglect of long-term goals, but sheer enjoyment of food. Our ends are hardly limited to longevity and health; our short-term goals are a large part of what makes life worth living.I see at least two major problems with Sarah Conly's line of reasoning — that we're bad at making rational decisions in our personal lives, so government should remedy this problem through coercive regulations.
Conly favors a paternalism of means, but the line between means and ends can be fuzzy, and there is a risk that well-motivated efforts to promote people’s ends will end up mischaracterizing them.... [M]eans-focused paternalists may be badly mistaken about people’s goals. Those who delay dieting may not be failing to promote their ends; they might simply care more about good meals than about losing weight.
Freedom of choice is an important safeguard against the potential mistakes of even the most well-motivated officials.... Officials may well be subject to the same kinds of errors that concern Conly in the first place.
To be clear, I'm convinced that people are often irrational. That's obvious without even looking at all that social science research (though the research is worthwhile for pinpointing exactly how we're irrational). I think we can all agree that people don't always act in their own best interests. That's not controversial.
But it doesn't follow logically that government regulations are the solution.
Problem 1: We're all just a bunch of flawed people. If people are irrational, then laws — written by politicians who are up for reelection, enforced by police officers, and interpreted by judges who are possibly biased and definitely busy — might also be irrational. Cass Sunstein makes a similar point above, but I'd go further and say government is often more irrational than individuals: even if regulators are rational, it often serves their interests to regulate in a way that doesn't serve yours — because they're acquiescing to corporate lobbyists, or because the public is unlikely to notice how the regulations eventually led to bad consequences.
Government isn't an all-purpose social-utility machine just waiting to help us make better decisions, if only we'd be willing to give up our stubborn adherence to the principle of individual autonomy. Even if we were to set aside all our cherished notions about how liberty is intrinsically good, it would still make sense to be skeptical of whether regulators know or care about the full consequences of their regulations.
Problem 2: If helping people involves insulating them from the natural consequences of their actions, this could "nudge" them to be more irrational. For instance, everyone knows that students sometimes act irrationally: they procrastinate, they write substandard papers when they're capable of doing better, they turn work in late, etc. Given these realities, it's an open question how teachers should nudge students to do less of this kind of thing. The teacher who's willing to give any grade from an A+ to an F- might be more effective than the teacher who gives everyone a B+ or A-.
The other day I blogged Evgeny Morozov's critique of "smart" kitchens gadgets:
To grasp the intellectual poverty that awaits us in a smart world, look no further than recent blueprints for a "smart kitchen"—an odd but persistent goal of today's computer scientists, most recently in designs from the University of Washington and Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.Being free to make mistakes and suffer the consequences — as a direct result of your mistakes — is vital to having a functioning society. We should be wary of proposals to solve this supposed problem. The remedy may have side effects worse than the disease.
Once we step into this magic space, we are surrounded by video cameras that recognize whatever ingredients we hold in our hands. Tiny countertop robots inform us that, say, arugula doesn't go with boiled carrots or that lemon grass tastes awful with chocolate milk. This kitchen might be smart, but it's also a place where every mistake, every deviation from the master plan, is frowned upon. It's a world that looks more like a Taylorist factory than a place for culinary innovation. Rest assured that lasagna and sushi weren't invented by a committee armed with formulas or with "big data" about recent consumer wants.
Creative experimentation propels our culture forward. That our stories of innovation tend to glorify the breakthroughs and edit out all the experimental mistakes doesn't mean that mistakes play a trivial role. As any artist or scientist knows, without some protected, even sacred space for mistakes, innovation would cease.
I assume that Sarah Conly would respond that she's talking about irrational behavior with long-term consequences, which don't give us immediate feedback and which we're bad at foreseeing. First of all, I'm not convinced that obesity, to use the article's main example, is so distant in time from the behavior that causes it. If you go on a diet, you can often notice the results, or lack thereof, pretty soon. So she might be overstating how much this is really about an inability to grasp long-term consequences.
But more fundamentally: why should I expect government to be better at considering my long-term future than I am? Are politicians truly concerned about what happens to me decades from now? I don't know. What I do know is that I care about what happens to me decades from now, and that politicians care about winning the next election. So the idea that government is generally in a better position to look out for our own interests than we are seems to be seriously flawed.