Right or Happy? — In

Right or Happy? — In a comment on the “Keeping it Real” post below, Julian glibly defines an intellectual as one who would rather be right than happy. Well, I don't think that can be right. I'd rather be happy than right, no doubt about it. Experience machine, here I come! My problem is that I have a neurotic urge to be right. I just can't help trying to be right. (I should say, not about everything – there're lots of fights in which I've no dog.) It would be wonderful if there was some kind of pre-established harmony here, where the lack of ignorance is bliss. But, no.

Now, I do think that we're all stuck with a disposition to regard the feeling of having truth as integral to happiness. We can't just say out loud, with full awareness, “Sure! The religious stories around which I build my life are nothing but elaborate fictions, and there is a largely unconscious conspiracy to create an environment in which the social and psychological costs of rejecting this tangled skein of falsehood is higher than just going along,” and then believe all the same. The point of this kind of tacit conspiracy is to insulate believers from psychological dissonance–to maintain a milieu in which it is possible, even easy, to believe that the stories are literally true, so that one can derive whatever value there is in them, including the satisfying feeling of having posession of the truth, without having to seriously confront the divergence of tale from fact.

It is precisely the need to reduce uncertainty, to feel sure, that makes it hard for certain intellectual types to be satisfied. I can't escape or dismiss the high likelihood of my own self-deception, delusion, and habits of confabulation. So my defining commitments are cast under a shadow of doubt, and my sense of my self becomes indistinct, which is unpleasant. I try to be Zen about it, and convince myself that the self is an illusion anyway, but it doesn't help.

It strikes me the Marie Gryphon is a bit optimistic in her smart post on the happy/right issue. She argues that by deferring to “opinion leaders” who appear to have happy followers, one is pursuing a generally rational policy for getting at the truth. All I see in such opinion leaders is the leader of a succesful conspiracy of belief. The relationship to truth eludes me. Furthermore, I think Marie's undersestimating the role of epistemic deference in the intellectual lives of even very independent minds. Almost everything I believe, somebody else told me. In this, I'm just like everybody else. We all make extensive use of the cognitive division of labor. What makes me different from many other people is that I have different policies for when to believe what people tell me. However, I adopted these policies rather than others in no small part due to my deference to certain people I regarded as experts in good policies. But it never ocurred to me that I should prefer to adopt policies for deciding when to believe what I'm told from experts with happy customers. And, for the sake of truth, it's probably a good thing too.

Marie writes that, “Most everyone is pursuing a rational strategy for finding truth,” and I wish she was right, but I can't quite believe it. No doubt, most are pursuing rational strategies for generating the feeling of having the truth, but that's not the issue. Now, there is a trivial way in which Marie's claim is true. Keeping your eyes open is a good strategy, and most everyone does it. And if you want to know which way to take the Red Line to get to Woodley Park, then asking's about as good as revelation, and we're all in the habit. But when it comes to the big questions — what it means to be a human being, or what a just society is, or what happens to us when we die — rational strategies seem thin on the ground. If the world were teeming with rational strategies for getting at the truth, wouldn't we see rather less delusion?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

12 thoughts

  1. Great review. I’m always interested in the language of politics, so I especially liked the part on the linguistic contortions/mutilations that Thaler and Sunstein go though to make “paternalism” sound unobjectionable. (I’ve occasionally seen conservatives try to take the ugly edge off of “censorship” using exactly the same tactic.)

  2. Will, I don’t object to anything in particular in your critique, however, I do wonder if you are throwing out the baby with the bath water.
    I agree that the idea of choice context being important isn’t revolutionary, but their focus on choice architecture does indeed appeal to my libertarian side as well as my large-D Democrat tendencies, which agree that more choice isn’t always going to lead to better outcomes.
    I thought Medicare Part D and 401k plans were excellent examples of the roll of choice architecture. And while you are right that the book is filled with cutesy examples of humans failing to acts as “econs,” these examples are not cutesy at all.
    Furthermore, while the idea behind choice architecture is simple, I do think they put forth a good (if static-filled) argument that “planned” choice architecture could lead to much better outcomes than unplanned.
    Frankly, most libertarians already have acknowledged the role of choice architecture. Look at education, most would acknowledge that giving parents an actual VOUCHER that can only be used for schools will lead to better outcomes than simply giving them cash — the same for food stamps, etc. And heck, that’s more paternalistic than the opt-out architecture that Thaler/Sunstein put forth!
    (I realize that many will say they don’t support vouchers either, or that if they do support redistribution to the poor, they just want the Friedman lump sump. I’m not talk to you.)

  3. “dork chariot” is the most euphonious phrase ever conjured from the humble shards of American English.
    I genuflect before you.

  4. Wow – this seems pretty caustic…especially when you seem to grant their central premise: there is no such thing as neutral choice architecture. Perhaps S and T don’t emphasize this enough to your liking (though you maintain, simultaneously, that they “make a great deal of the idea”) but once you’ve agreed to this empirical observation (done, of course, by those elitist scientists…with all their knowledge) the notion of freedom that you want to maintain is highly curtailed – and thus your own slippery slope argument is unconvincing. Thus you end up simultaneously warning against any encroachment on freedom and granting that freedom ain’t what it used to be. You’re already on the slippery slope.
    In this way, your complaint that, in the end, the libertarianism of libertarian paternalism is secured only “good will” is both flat and true at the same time. Yes, like most political arrangements, LP would be L only to the extent that there exists some form of will behind it. And, yes, paternalism (being natural) would be ineluctable – but this is because it is inevitable while libertarianism is not. This leaves you in the especially precarious position of embracing “realignment” on the psychological level while chastising it on the level of policy. Why does it scare you in one case and not in another? Does this become a quarrel not about freedom but efficiency and/or (gulp) expertise?
    (Damn Elites!! Here they come again with all their crazy science talk.)

  5. Yep Segways are dorky – and tons of fun. Whee! You’ve obviously never ridden one for very long. They just have an awesome retro-Jetsons feel, much different than a bike.

  6. Wilkinson’s review of Nudge, summarized: “I agree, but would have chosen different words. Oh, and I’m sneering as I say this.”
    To be fair, Wilkinson raises an interesting point about choice architecture. Choice architecture recognizes that the choice I make will be influenced by the way the options are arrayed, even if all options remain available to me. Wilkinson observes that the act of making one option the default option sends a symbolic message that the default option is the Right Choice. Wilkinson is leery about creating such a stamp of approval for options he doesn’t like for himself – choices such as having people donate organs or perform national service unless they specifically opt out.
    In one sense, this is a very practical objection: Moving to an opt-out world could send a symbolic message that opting in is good, and that the choice to opt-out exists solely at the government’s discretion. (It would also create the possibility of social pressure being brought to bear on people who opt out. Ideally the choice to opt out could be made with some degree of confidentiality to minimize these concerns.)
    In another sense, this is a doctrinally challenging objection. I’m often arguing that function should trump form, and that legitimate governmental interests trump symbolic matters. It may look bad to have the White House surrounded by concrete blast barriers; too bad. You’re religion may require you to carry a knife on your person at all times, even on airplanes; too bad. So I’m flummoxed to be in a position to say that we should not adopt a policy that might achieve a legitimate governmental purpose more efficiently merely because doing so would send a symbolic message that offends me.
    I’ll noodle on this. But more generally, Nudge seems pretty benign to me.

  7. For modern man, the consequences of acting on our neolithic intuitions are catastrophic. Therefore, in the spirit of Sunstein and Thaler’s Libertarian Paternalism, I propose the following “nudge.” If ever a crises arises, and you think either there ought to be a law or you want to seize someone else’s money to solve it the issue (both outcomes of neolithic default settings), stop your thinking right there. Rewind and then reset your default settings. Remember, this is your neolithic mind at work. Instead think: how can voluntary cooperation to mutual advantage solve this better than an appointed bureaucratic god? With this “choice architecture” in place, we can rest assured that people will be better off–by their own lights–than they would be under our original default settings.

  8. I’ll be interested to see if even I agree with myself by then. Yawnworthy!?

    1. NB the word modified a particular club and not necessarily its individual members 🙂

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