libertarian paternalism

The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited

If there was any doubt that Richard Thaler is not a “libertarian,” even though he implies that he is one when he calls himself a “libertarian paternalist,” read this:

There is another possible argument for including the rich in these tax cuts, one based on “fairness.” By this reasoning, the wealthy are entitled to low tax rates because they have temporarily had them, and it would now be unfair to take them back.

But by that same argument, unemployment insurance should never expire, and every day should be your birthday. “Temporary” has no meaning if it bestows a permanent right.

By Thaler’s convoluted logic, the money one earns is a gift from government, and those who pay taxes have no greater claim on their own money than those to whom the government hands it. How is this “libertarian,” by any reasonable interpretation of that word?

As I have said in various ways, Thaler is a paternalist but not a libertarian. One cannot be both.

Related posts:
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Discounting and “Libertarian” Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist

Rawls Meets Bentham

Steven Landsburg writes:

Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument.

There’s no question that extending benefits would be good for the currently unemployed, and no question that it would be bad for those who are called on to foot the bill. Economists usually deal with that kind of conflict is by asking what policy you’d prefer if you had amnesia, and and didn’t know your own employment status…. The amnesiac is an impartial judge who is forced to care about everyone, because he/she might be anyone.

I have no wish to defend the indefensible Paul Krugman, but Landsburg’s attack is equally indefensible, combining — as it does — John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophical progeny. The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia, requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you cannot do it. Your position about a moral issue will be your position, not that of someone else. Moreover, it will not truly be your position unless you put it into practice. Talk — like happiness research — is cheap.

Pretended omniscience is the essence of utilitarianism, which is captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

But there is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

Landsburg, in the space of a single post, has put himself in company with “liberals” like Krugman, who arrogate to themselves the ability to judge the worthiness of others. A pox on both their houses.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul

Accountants of the Soul

In a post about two of the founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green, and L.T. Hobhouse, I say

Green and Hobhouse . . . were accountants of the soul. Green’s apparent delicacy in warning of too much intervention [by the state] is overcome, in the end, by his recognition of the British state (embodied in Parliament) as the proper arbiter of human conduct. Hobhouse, more boldly, presumed that he and others of his ilk (but not those who disagree with him) could determine how much of one’s property arose from “social organisation,” how much of one’s property was “held for power,” and how to expand liberty by adopting different forms of coercion than those imposed by social norms.

Once again, we are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

It is hard to distinguish the mindset of the “liberal” from that of the “libertarian” paternalist, who does not cavil at the prospect of using the power of the state to “nudge” lesser mortals toward “choices” that he deems in their best interest. “Liberals” and “libertarian” paternalists are alike in their abstract love of mankind and particular disdain for individuals.

Related posts (broken links have been fixed):
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism and the Future of America
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come

The Mind of a Paternalist

The April 2010 edition of Cato Unbound, “Slippery Slopes and the New Paternalism,” is about “libertarian” paternalism and whether it deserves to be called libertarian, without the scare quotes. Richard Thaler, of whom I have written extensively (e.g., see this, this, and this), is a key contributor to the colloquy and a fierce defender of his ideas, which have had their fullest exposition in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The co-author of Nudge is Cass Sunstein, which should be enough to tell you that “libertarian” paternalism is about paternalism, not liberty. (Even The New York Times Magazine can’t disguise Sunstein’s arrogance.)

Thaler’s method of defending his position is to insist, repeatedly, that it is “libertarian,” even as he oozes paternalism. Consider one of his entries (“The Argument Clinic“) in the Cato Unbound colloquium, where he says the following:

[S]ince the word paternalism is what seems to give [the colloquium’s lead essayist Glen] Whitman fits, let’s re-label our policy “Best Guess”. “Best Guess” is the policy of choosing the choice architecture that is your best guess of what the participants would choose for themselves if they had the time and expertise to make an informed choice.

If that isn’t pure, presumptive arrogance, I don’t know what is. It conveys a presumption of omniscience on the part of the “best guesser,” along with a presumption that the “best guesser” ought to be making decisions for others.

Here’s another passage from Thaler’s post:

In many domains we [paternalists] can drastically improve on what is customary. Consider organ donations. In most states in the United States, to make your donation available you have to take some action such as sign the back of your driver’s license and get two witnesses to sign it. In some countries such as Spain they have switched to an “opt out” system called presumed consent. In Nudge we endorse a third approach, in this domain called “mandated choice.” It also happens to be used in my home state of Illinois.

Under this plan, when you go in to get your drivers license picture retaken every few years, you are asked whether you want to be a donor or not. You must say yes or no to get a license. About two thirds of drivers are saying yes, and lots of lives will be prolonged as a result. This is a great example of libertarian Best Guess in action. Although a large majority of people say in polls that they would want their organs harvested, many never get around to opting in, and a vocal minority in the United States object strenuously to the idea of presumed consent. So it is worthwhile to find a policy that gets many of the benefits of presumed consent without while honoring the preferences of those who object to having to opt out. Mandated choice has some other advantages in this context, namely that families are less likely to overrule the choices of the donor if that choice has been made actively rather than passively.

Let me count the assumptions: (1) Organ donation is the government’s business. (2) The government should deny a driver’s license to a person does not wish to say whether or not he wishes to be an organ donor. (3) This oppression of an individual is justified by the supposed fact that “a large majority of people . . . say that they would want their organs harvested.” Why give the government yet another excuse to intrude into private matters? The obvious answer to that question is that Thaler can’t resist the urge to lead others toward the decisions that he wants them to make. If, when you renew your driver’s license, you’re asked if you want to be an organ donor, your likely (politically correct) response is to say “yes,” even if you don’t really want to be an organ donor. This is not freedom of choice; it is subtle coercion.

Thaler stretches hard to discredit Whitman’s objections to “libertarian” paternalism; for example:

One of the examples we discuss in Nudge is an innovation by the city of Chicago on a dangerous curve on Lake Shore Drive. The city painted horizontal lines across the road that get closer and closer together as the driver approaches the apex of the curve. As we recently posted on our blog, this innovation has reduced accidents by 36%. Does Whitman think this is bad because it was implemented by the government? Should only private toll roads be allowed to think creatively? And notice that the “customary” signage in this location, which included a reduction in the speed limit to 20 mph, was less effective than the nudge.

What does this have to do the subject at hand? The government of Chicago is already in place as the paternalistic provider of Chicago’s streets — having usurped voluntary private decisions about the placement, construction, upkeep, and regulation of those streets. Given that the government is the provider of Chicago’s streets, it has assumed the duty of making those streets “safe” for their users, without the benefit of market feedback about users’ preferences as to the the tradeoff between safety and other attributes (e.g., speed). The government merely adopted an innovation (the horizontal lines), which replaced (or supplemented) another innovation (a speed-limit sign). Horizontal lines are no more or less paternalistic than speed-limit signs, merely different in their effectiveness along one dimension of street-users’ preferences.

In the examples I have given, Thaler simply assumes that government is “the answer.” Instead of arguing that decisions are best made in by private, voluntary actors, he too readily accepts the role of government and, instead, seeks ways to embed it more deeply in our lives by making it seem more effective. That is one path down the slippery slope toward serfdom — a slope that Thaler denies, even as he pours intellectual lubricant on it.

Thaler’s invocation of the Lake Shore Drive innovation is especially revealing. Only a hardened paternalist (if a closeted one) would stretch so hard (and fail) to find something non-paternalistic about one of America’s most paternalistic institutions: the government of Chicago.

Discounting and “Libertarian” Paternalism

Richard Thaler is a leading proponent of “libertarian” (or “soft”) paternalism. But there is nothing “libertarian” or “soft” about paternalism, no matter what it’s called. (See this, for example.)

Thaler’s embrace of paternalism springs from arrogance — the presumption that he knows how others should lead their lives. A sign of that arrogance, and one that finds its way into Thaler’s rationale for paternalism, is the identification of well-being with wealth-maximization.

The surest route to wealth-maximization — for the Thalers of this world — is to evaluate alternative courses of action by discounting projected streams of revenues (income) or costs (expenses). Consider the following passage from an old paper of Thaler’s:

A discount rate is simply a shorthand way of defining a firm’s, organization’s, or person’s time value of money. This rate is always determined by opportunity costs. Opportunity costs, in turn, depend on circumstances. Consider the following example: An organization must choose between two projects which yield equal effectiveness (or profits in the case of a firm). Project A will cost $200 this year and nothing thereafter. Project B will cost $205 next year and nothing before or after. Notice that if project B is selected the organization will have an extra $200 to use for a year. Whether project B is preferred simply depends on whether it is worth $5 to the organization to have those $200 to use for a year. That, in turn, depends on what the organization would do with the money. If the money would just sit around for the year, its time value is zero and project A should be chosen. However, if the money were put in a 5 percent savings account, it would earn $10 in the year and thus the organization would gain $5 by selecting project B. (Center for Naval Analyses,  “Discounting and Fiscal Constraints: Why Discounting is Always Right,” Professional Paper 257, August 1979, pp. 1-2)

More generally, the preferred alternative — among alternatives conferring equal benefits (effectiveness, output, utility, satisfaction) — is the one whose cost stream has the lowest present value:

the value on a given date of a future payment or series of future payments, discounted to reflect the time value of money and other factors such as investment risk.

It is my view that economists seize on discounting as a way of evaluating options because it is a trivial exercise to compute the present value of a stream of outlays (or receipts). I should say that discounting seems like a trivial exercise because the difficult tasks — choosing a time horizon, choosing a discount rate, and translating outlays into future benefits — are assumed away.

Consider the choices facing a government decision-maker. In Thaler’s simplified version of reality, a government decision-maker (manager) faces a choice between two projects that (ostensibly) would deliver equal benefits (effectiveness, output), even though their costs would be incurred at different times. Specifically, the manager must choose between project A, at a cost of $200 in year 1, and equally-effective project B, at a cost of $205 in year 2. Thaler claims that the manager can choose between the two projects by discounting their costs:

A [government] manager . . . cannot earn bank interest on funds withheld for a year. . . .  However, there will generally exist other ways for the manager to “invest” funds which are available. Examples include cost-saving expenditures, conservation measures, and preventive maintenance. These kinds of expenditures, if they have positive rates of return, permit a manager to invest money just as if he were putting the money in a savings account.

. . . Suppose a thorough analysis of cost-saving alternatives reveals that [in year 2] a maintenance project will be required at a cost of $215. Call this project D. Alternatively the project can be done [in year 1] (at the same level of effectiveness) for only $200. Call this project C. All of the options are displayed in table 1.

Discounting in the public sector_table 1

(op. cit, pp. 3-4)

Thaler believes that his example clinches the argument for discounting because the choice of project B (an expenditure of $205 in year 2) enables the manager to undertake project C in year 1, and thereby to “save” $10 in year 2. But Thaler’s “proof” is deeply flawed:

  • If a maintenance project is undertaken in year 1, it will pay off sooner than if it is undertaken in year 2 but, by the same token, its benefits will diminish sooner than if it is undertaken in year 2.
  • More generally, different projects cannot, by definition be equally effective. Projects A and B may be about equally effective by a particular measure of effectiveness, but because they are different things they will differ in other respects, and those differences could be crucial in choosing between A and B.
  • Specifically, projects A and B might be equally effective when compared quantitatively in the context of an abstract scenario, but A might be more effective in an unquantifiable but crucial respect. For example, the earlier expenditure on A might be viewed by a potential enemy as a more compelling deterrent than the later expenditure on B because it would demonstrate more clearly the government’s willingness and ability to mount a strong defense against the potential enemy.
  • The “correct” discount rate depends on the options available to a particular manager of a particular government activity. Yet Thaler insists on the application of a uniform discount rate by all government managers (op. cit., p. 6). By Thaler’s own example, such a practice could lead a manager to choose the wrong option.
  • For a decision to rest on the use of a particular discount rate, there must be great certainty about the future costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. But there seldom is. The practice of discounting therefore promotes an illusion of certainty — a potentially dangerous illusion, in the case of national defense.

The fundamental problem is that Thaler presumes to place himself in the position of the decision-maker. But every decision-maker — from a senior government executive to a young person starting his first job — has a unique set of objectives, options, uncertainties, and risk preferences. Because Thaler cannot locate himself in a decision-maker’s unique situation, he can exercise his penchant for arrogance only by insisting that each and every decision-maker adhere to a simplistic rule of thumb — one that obtains results favored by Thaler.

In the context of personal decision-making — which is the focal point of “libertarian” paternalism — the act of discounting serves wealth-maximization (a favored paternalistic objective). But, as I have said,

[t]here is simply a lot more to maximizing satisfaction than maximizing wealth. That’s why some people choose to have a lot of children, when doing so obviously reduces the amount they can save. That’s why some choose to retire early rather than stay in stressful jobs. Rationality and wealth maximization are two very different things, but a lot of laypersons and too many economists are guilty of equating them.

The 34-year-old Richard Thaler of 1979 was arrogantly wrong about government decision-making. The 65-year old Thaler of 2010 is — and has been — arrogantly wrong about personal decision-making.

I will have more to say about Thaler’s wrong-headedness. In the meantime, read this post and follow the links therein.

More about Paternalism

To complement my earlier post, “Beware of Libertarian Paternalists,” I offer the following links:

Pitfalls of Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

Hayek on the Use of Superior Expert Knowledge as a Justification for Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

Little Brother Is Watching You: The New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part I (Glen Whitman, Agoraphilia)

Be sure to read the posts and articles linked therein.

Beware of Libertarian Paternalists

I have written extensively about paternalism of the so-called libertarian variety. (See this post and the posts linked therein.) Glen Whitman, in two recent posts at Agoraphilia, renews his attack on “libertarian paternalism,” the main proponents of which are Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (S&T). In the first of the two posts, Whitman writes:

[Thaler] continues to disregard the distinction between public and private action.

Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft’s engines rather than do it yourself?

The owners of ski resorts hire experts who have previously skied the runs, under various conditions, to decide which trails should be designated for advanced skiers. These experts know more than a newcomer to the mountain. Bureaucrats are human, too, but they can also hire experts and conduct research.Here we see two of Thaler’s favorite stratagems deployed at once. First, he relies on a deceptively innocuous, private, and non-coercive example to illustrate his brand of paternalism. Before it was cafeteria dessert placement; now it’s ski-slope markings. Second, he subtly equates private and public decision makers without even mentioning their different incentives. In this case, he uses “bureaucrats” to refer to all managers, regardless of whether they manage private or public enterprises.

The distinction matters. The case of ski-slope markings is the market principle at work. Skiers want to know the difficulty of slopes, and so the owners of ski resorts provide it. They have a profit incentive to do so. This is not at all coercive, and it is no more “paternalist” than a restaurant identifying the vegetarian dishes.

Public bureaucrats don’t have the same incentives at all. They don’t get punished by consumers for failing to provide information, or for providing the wrong information. They don’t suffer if they listen to the wrong experts. They face no competition from alternative providers of their service. They get to set their own standards for “success,” and if they fail, they can use that to justify a larger budget.

And Thaler knows this, because these are precisely the arguments made by the “critics” to whom he is responding. His response is just a dodge, enabled by his facile use of language and his continuing indifference – dare I say hostility? – to the distinction between public and private.

In the second of the two posts, Whitman says:

The advocates of libertarian paternalism have taken great pains to present their position as one that does not foreclose choice, and indeed even adds choice. But this is entirely a matter of presentation. They always begin with non-coercive and privately adopted measures, such as the ski-slope markings in Thaler’s NY Times article. And when challenged, they resolutely stick to these innocuous examples (see this debate between Thaler and Mario Rizzo, for example). But if you read Sunstein & Thaler’s actual publications carefully, you will find that they go far beyond non-coercive and private measures. They consciously construct a spectrum of “libertarian paternalist” policies, and at one end of this spectrum lies an absolutely ban on certain activities, such as motorcycling without a helmet. I’m not making this up!…

[A]s Sunstein & Thaler’s published work clearly indicates, this kind of policy [requiring banks to offer “plain vanilla” mortgages] is the thin end of the wedge. The next step, as outlined in their articles, is to raise the cost of choosing other options. In this case, the government could impose more and more onerous requirements for opting out of the “plain vanilla” mortgage: you must fill out extra paperwork, you must get an outside accountant, you must have a lawyer present, you must endure a waiting period, etc., etc. Again, this is not my paranoid imagination at work. S&T have said explicitly that restrictions like these would count as “libertarian paternalism” by their definition….

The problem is that S&T’s “libertarian paternalism” is used almost exclusively to advocate greater intervention, not less. I have never, for instance, seen S&T push for privatization of Social Security or vouchers in education. I have never seen them advocate repealing a blanket smoking ban and replacing it with a special licensing system for restaurants that want to allow their customers to smoke. If they have, I would love to see it.

In their articles, S&T pay lip service to the idea that libertarian paternalism lies between hard paternalism and laissez faire, and thus that it could in principle be used to expand choice. But look at the actual list of policies they’ve advocated on libertarian paternalist grounds, and see where their real priorities lie.

S&T are typical “intellectuals,” in that they presume to know how others should lead their lives — a distinctly non-libertarian attitude. It is, in fact, a hallmark of “liberalism.” In an earlier post I had this to say about the founders of “liberalism” — John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green, and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse:

[W]e are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well….

The other ways, of course, include the diminution of social liberty, which is indivisible from economic liberty.

Just how dangerous to liberty are S&T? Thaler is an influential back-room operator, with close ties to the Obama camp. Sunstein is a long-time crony and adviser who now heads the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he has an opportunity to enforce “libertarian paternalism”:

…Sunstein would like to control the content of the internet — for our own good, of course. I refer specifically to Sunstein’s “The Future of Free Speech,” in which he advances several policy proposals, including these:

4. . . . [T]he government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way. They would not be required to click on them. But it is reasonable to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet sidewalk, promoting some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured. Perhaps a lottery system of some kind could be used to reduce this risk.

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views. This policy would be designed to make it less likely for people to simply hear echoes of their own voices. Of course, many people would not click on the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives. [Emphasis added.]

A Left-libertarian defends Sunstein’s foray into thought control, concluding that

Sunstein once thought some profoundly dumb policies might be worth considering, but realized years ago he was wrong about that… The idea was a tentative, speculative suggestion he now condemns in pretty strong terms.

Alternatively, in the face of severe criticism of his immodest proposal, Sunstein merely went underground, to await an opportunity to revive his proposal. I somehow doubt that Sunstein, as a confirmed paternalist, truly abandoned it. The proposal certainly was not off-the-cuff, running to 11 longish web pages.  Now, judging by the bulleted list above, the time is right for a revival of Sunstein’s proposal. And there he is, heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The powers of that office supposedly are constrained by the executive order that established it. But it is evident that the Obama adminstration isn’t bothered by legal niceties when it comes to the exercise of power. Only a few pen strokes stand between Obama and a new, sweeping executive order, the unconstitutionality of which would be of no import to our latter-day FDR.

It’s just another step beyond McCain-Feingold, isn’t it?

Thus is the tyranny of “libertarian paternalism.” And thus does the death-spiral of liberty proceed.