Saturday, May 17, 2008

Incentives to Be Good, Incentives to Be Technocrats


Unlike those nice Pevensie kids from Narnia, there are some bad kids in the real world — like Arkansas’s Mitchell Johnson, co-murderer of five people at his middle school in Jonesboro ten years ago and recently rearrested for weapons and drug possession and for credit card fraud (his jailtime for the multiple murders having been only seven years).

But how does that relate to my dislike of law professor Cass Sunstein, you ask?

Well, his new book (co-authored with economist Richard Thaler), Nudge, is apparently Sunstein’s latest attempt to use the language of economics and individual liberty to push mostly-unlibertarian conclusions.  Admittedly, the new book sounds like it stresses the non-coercive nature of its recommendations — how to get people to drive at the correct speed using subconscious visual cues or eat more vegetables due to finding them in pleasing eye-level positions in cafes, etc. — which is an improvement, perhaps a side effect of the libertarian influence on Sunstein of his University of Chicago colleague Richard Epstein or the libertarian daughter of his ex-girlfriend Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum is also at Chicago, was formerly at Brown, and before that was lead singer of Led Zeppelin, or at least a close visual approximation, as we used to joke at Brown — and don’t get me wrong, she and Robert Plant are both good-looking people).

But since Sunstein’s prior recent books have included one attacking the very idea of private property and another lauding the dictatorial FDR’s creation of a “second Bill of Rights” to replace that purportedly overly-individualistic and anti-government first one (that old thing), I don’t trust that a Sunstein-influenced intelligentsia, enamored of the idea of tweaking human behavior in little ways, will do so entirely through voluntary means.  And we do have abundant private-sector means of tweaking behavior, after all.  You know, those old systems of cues and incentives called advice, peer pressure, tradition, markets, advertising, protest, criticism, college lectures, self-help, sermons, interventions, book publishing, and so on?


Now, I love the idea of using behavioral economics to point out how people’s decision-making deviates from the imagined rational ideal.  In fact, my coworkers and I spend half our time talking about such deviations in the area of public health.  Furthermore, I think behavioral economics actually brings us a step away from neoclassical economics (the only kind most people know) toward Austrian School economics, which is more libertarian precisely because it starts from the assumption of contingent individual preferences of unpredictable and varying strengths, combined with radically decentralized and piecemeal information — almost the opposite of the omniscience/perfect-rationality assumptions that always get neoclassical econ mocked by anyone who wants to throw out econ altogether.

But you just know that if the intellectuals fall in love with the ostensibly novel idea that they understand people’s rational failings better than the rest of us — and I blame Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys for making this sort of thing trendy, fascinating though it is — it will never be seen as reason to fear that central government planners, too, might be irrational and biased and dangerous.  Rather, it will become the latest hip rationale for letting the planners control the rest of us (supposedly stupider) people.

But the government can’t even be trusted to get the big, obvious incentive structures right — like punishing a youthful murderer severely enough (or simply putting him away long enough) to prevent future crimes.  And if you want to talk incentives: as Rand-influenced writer Robert Bidinotto argued about two decades ago (when crime-fighting was still seen as a somewhat retrograde concern), misplaced compassion and resultant light sentences for violent offenders not only ignores the offenders’ past and future victims but the potential harm from letting lightly-sentenced youth back into their communities to send the implicit message “going through the legal system isn’t that hard after all — so maybe you could try some crimes, too.”


Nietzsche, in what many would probably regard as one of his most libertarian lines, wrote that we should distrust people in whom the urge to punish is powerful — and Nietzsche was wrong (he sometimes was, you know).  Rather, I say, beware people who show little interest in punishing burglars and murderers — the big, obvious things that need punishing — but who show lots of interest in punishing the million petty little things that make up the rest of our lives, like eating trans fats, putting an unauthorized addition on the house, dancing in a venue with no cabaret license (as some people will protest in favor of doing today in NYC), or putting the “wrong” amount of money in savings accounts.

That way lies totalitarianism, combined with murderers and burglars still roaming the streets.  In short: if we’re willing to buy your books, intellectuals, please don’t regulate us on top of it.  We’ll judge the soundness of your advice ourselves and continue to behave as we choose.


David said...

I come from the land of the ice and snow. And whisper tales of glory. Valhalla I am comi-i-ing.

Todd Seavey said...

Yes, but might glory adversely affect one’s cholesterol level? That’s the great concern.