Sunday, February 24, 2013

If people are bad at deciding what's best for themselves, is government the solution?

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. ...

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.
Sunstein has several good objections to this theory:
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.

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.

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.

Of course, people are often irrational — they act against their own best interests. We don't need social science research to know that, though the research is worthwhile for pinpointing exactly how we're irrational.

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, possibly because they're beholden to lobbyists. Meanwhile, the public has a hard time holding government accountable because it's often not obvious how regulations eventually lead 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 less effective at rational thinking. Being free to make mistakes, and suffering the consequences as a direct result, can help you learn to do better in the future.

And what one person considers a mistake, someone else might see as a useful opportunity. 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.

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.

Conly might respond that she's talking about irrational behavior with long-term consequences, which we're bad at foreseeing. First of all, I'm not convinced that the article's main example, obesity, 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.

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'm not sure about that. What I am sure about is that I care about what happens to me decades from now, and that politicians care about winning the next election. So is government really in a better position to look out for our own interests than we are?


Peter said...

I agree with both your points in principle, but I think this is an issue where the principles are pretty irrelevant to the practical issues at hand. Regulating the size of sodas is such a minor thing that it makes everyone on both sides look petty just for engaging in the debate, even more so if they start invoking utilitarian principles (on one side) or Mill (on the other).

This is part of why Bloomberg may get away with it: he knows he looks silly, but I'm sure he knows that his opponents will look silly too. There's something a little creepy about Coke spending all that money to make sure you can buy more than 16 oz at a time. It makes me think "Bloomberg may be going a bit too far, but is Coke really that desperate to pump me full of sugar to make a few extra pennies? Gross."

Personally, as a New Yorker who saw the smoking ban as complete nanny-state dilettantism at the time, I now see it as a really good idea, and almost everyone I know (even many heavy smokers) seems to agree. That can't help but color my reaction to this issue, even though it seems like more of an overreach.

I'm not opposed to libertarians on many issues, but I think when they kick up a fuss about something really petty where they happen to be on the same side as big unsympathetic commercial interests, they're not doing themselves any favors in the long term.

MnMark said...

Obesity was never a problem until the last thirty years. And what happened in the last 30-50 years? Government got involved with telling people stop eating saturated fat and to eat more "healthy whole grains" and vegetable oils. Grains and vegetable oils cause obesity. (Grains, for instance, are what are used to fatten cattle prior to slaughter. Grains are best suited for birds, not mammals.)

So it was people like this woman favoring paternalism who CAUSED the obesity epidemic. And now she proposes even more coercive government intrusion into our lives in order to fix it.

This is exactly like socialism. Socialists cause a problem (high medical costs and high tuition costs, for example) and then, ignoring the fact that socialism caused the problem, blithely advocate even more invasive, smothering socialism as a remedy.

Their idiocy is really frustrating.

LemmusLemmus said...

On the irrationality of politicians, and regulators more generally, I found this counterargument worthwhile.

John Althouse Cohen said...

LemmusLemmus, first of all, that link is about "nudge" policies. Though I used the word "nudge" in this post, it was mainly about coercive policies.

But if you want to construe that post as applying to coercive regulations too, the argument in that post would become an illustration of the fallacy I'm talking about. The blogger depicts private individuals as impetuous and impulsive, while regulators are described as experts at making rational decisions (decisions that happen to apply to other people, i.e. regulations). Where does the blogger (I don't their gender) get this assumption that regulated actions by individuals are inherently impulsive? People sit down and come up with their diets or workout regimens very carefully. True, they sometimes impulsively break their diets, but by the same token, government officials sometimes regulate or inspect or police or adjudicate or vote impulsively. Legislators often don't even read the laws they're voting on! And remember, the citizenry influences the laws through democracy — citizens in the voting both are very often not thinking at all about the fact that they're effectively casting a vote for policy X (either because they care about other issues instead, or because they can't predict future bills).

And I don't see the blogger's point that my type of argument is comparing apples and oranges. I mean, obviously, eating something is not identical to regulating the decision about whether to eat something. But they have a lot to do with each other, and this is a very broad discussion about all sorts of behaviors and decisions that could be regulated. The individual actions we're talking about are so diverse — you could say they're apples and oranges. Yet the Conly/Sunstein approach is to look at studies of people's rationality (or lack thereof) and draw a lot of bold conclusions that can apply to all sorts of contexts. Those conclusions could apply to many different kinds of human behavior, including legislating and regulating and policing and judging. Given how broadly the Conly/Sunstein types cast their net, I don't see the sense in suddenly saying, "Ah, but it doesn't apply to regulators, because what they do is so different."

John Althouse Cohen said...

By the way, I'm not trying to make the case that there shouldn't be coercive policies for people's own good. Maybe there should be. My argument is much narrower. The point of my post is just to say: given that people are often irrational in a lot of ways, "it doesn't follow logically that government regulations are the solution." It may very well be that regulations are the solution for some other reason.

Kirk Parker said...


"...given that people are often irrational in a lot of ways, it doesn't follow logically that government regulations are the solution." "

Right, but you're putting it too weakly. There are probably a few things more irrational than our present federal government, but you can probably also count them on the fingers of one hand. How many years since we even had a federal budget???

trailbee said...

" ... 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. .."
We are who and what we are, each person an individual being. Now, put us all together and you have chaos. This chaos is being governed by the chaotic. Your above statement, the last in your post, is correct.
Kudos. You figured it out.
PS: Pickles and strawberries during pregnancy? Will my government tell me to use a condom or abort? I rest your case. :)

dd said...

I have heard some of the more libertarian and Hayekian leaning economist, including Don Boudreaux, talk about the fact that many people say that imperfect markets and market failures justify govt actions. They point out that most people do not think about the important question of whether govt action is imperfect too and just as there are failures in markets there are failures in govt actions. The question is not only whether there is market failure but whether the govt can and will do a better job than markets. Many pro govt ppl dont ask that question. In a similar vein the same issues and questions apply here as well

trailbee said...

dd is correct, which brings up a very important point - the dumbing down of America. I realize I sound very weird, but could it be that when Dr. Spock, the Pediatrician, introduced his liberal formula for raising children, he accidental also removed a certain type of work ethic? It seems as though from then on, parents were no longer certain of their proper role, and very slowly school became not only the place to learn, but also the babysitter and then the parent.
I think the unintended consequence of having the school become the nanny, has been carried over into our current society. Thus, 50 years later, to some people, Government is the nanny and daddy and conscience. Many do not seem to question the ability of govt. to do a better job. It is just assumed that it will. I, along with many others, disagree, which, of course, brings on this awful division.