Outing Myself (from the Cannabis Closet)

In my latest column for The Week, I argue that the drug war is stupid, deadly, and unjust and try to do my small part to normalize marijuana use. My favorite reaction so far comes from Jossip:

Holy shit Wilkinson, you’re really putting yourself on the line buddy! A upper-class, white Libertarian admits to smoking pot. (But does he listen to NPR? Even better: He’s on it!) Since this might actually (god we hope) take off as the next P.C. activist trend (that would be hysterical), here are the next media figures to emerge from the cannabis closet.

And then there’s a list of Hollywood types I am embarrassed to be flattered to be listed among. It’s true I don’t have a lot to lose. My employer’s response to a column titled “I smoke pot, and I like it,” is to send it out to a list of thousands as a “Cato Daily Commentary.” But you’ve got to expect people in a safe place to make the not-especially-brave early moves in the de-stigmatization game. Neverthless, I think the demonstration effect is important. I’m no “stoner” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m an overeducated, relatively successful professional with a closet full of suits. How freaking square do I look in my byline picture at The Week? The stigma can’t last long when that’s the picture of a typical marijuana user. If this would “take off as the next P.C. activist trend” that would be terrific as well as hysterical. But I know for a fact that tons of P.C.-bashing Republican types smoke weed too, and it would be even better if they would stand and be counted.

More Thoughts on "Choice Architecture" and "Libertarian Paternalism"

In the comments below, Berger writes of my Nudge review:

this seems pretty caustic…especially when you seem to grant their central premise: there is no such thing as neutral choice architecture.

But who contests it? Constitutional design, law and economics, policy analysis, etc. all rest solidly on the idea that choices are responsive to features of the contexts of choice. Nothing interesting happens if you reclassify policy analysis as “choice architecture.” If you raise the expected cost of driving without a seatbelt, other things equal, you get less driving without a seatbelt. This is not groundbreaking, or even especially interesting. I could say with that the “choice architecture” of the U.S. mortgage and finance system led to the wreckage that is now piling up. But what would you learn by that?

Nor is it especially interesting –not to non-economists at least — that models of the behavior of fictional agents do not predict human behavior. It is interesting to use empirical psychology to refine the economist’s slogan that “people respond to incentives,” which of course is true, but underspecified. Nothing about the slogan tells you how people manage to define the set of options live to them at any given moment, or how they come to rank them. Simply learning more about mind and motivation can do a lot in helping us understand how people will tend to act in various kinds of contexts. Also, human beings are physical systems with bodies, so features of situations that seem irrelevant to “purely rational” evaluation will affect our choices. If you vary only how hungry, fatigued, or warm people are in otherwise identical situations, you will probably get differences in their choices. But we knew that.

If you gave a perfect, slambang sales presentation but didn’t clinch the deal because you forgot to provide a room with chairs for the fine folks from BizCorp to sit in, would you be perplexed? “But sitting down has nothing to do with whether Widgets 3.0 is the only way for BizCorp to save millions!” And people find it boring and taxing to fill out paperwork. Yes! So take that into account when thinking of how to help people do things that ordinarily require some paperwork on their part. But don’t call thoughtfulness or helpfulness paternalism, because it isn’t. It is thoughtfulness or helpfulness.

Not taking away people’s choices is “libertarian” in an attenuated sense. But not taking away people’s choices is also what it is to not be a paternalist. Insofar as you’re not taking away choices, you’re no paternalist. That’s just the way the words work!

Now, this can seem a lot trickier than it is if you are determined to look at things a certain way, and Sunstein and Thaler seem to be determined in precisely this way. They want to point out that there is a way you can subtly reshape people’s choices without ever coercively taking any choices away. But if this subtle reshaping can get the same effect the paternalist seeks by coercively lopping off choices, then why not just see this reshaping as a kinder, gentler brand of paternalism?

You see how that works? Start with a paternalist doing what he was always trying to do by taking away choices. Then show him a way of doing it without taking away choices. And then simply deny that the paternalist, qua paternalist, has thereby disappeared. A choice-preserving paternalist! Likewise, take a Catholic doing what she was always trying to do by means of the Pope, then show her a way of doing it without the Pope. Voila: an non-Papist Catholic!

You and I are speaking fondly under the stars. The warm breeze and my kind eyes make you think you might want to kiss me. Right as you lean in I mention that I bathe in goat’s blood. Insome sense I have just taken away one of your options. Kissing me has vanished from your feasible set, as far as you’re concerned. Suppose I have chosen to disgust you only because I care for you, but know in the end you’ll end up hurt and it will be better for you this way.  That makes me weird for sure, nice maybe, and a paternalist in the same way it makes me a humanitarian: not at all.

My complaint about Nudge is that what is most provocative about it is the way the authors misuse words, and what is most genuinely useful about it — suggestions for policy based on better empirical psychology — is pointlessly burdened with their linguistic shenanigans and  silly “beyond left and right” framing. Indeed, I agree that “choice architecture” — i.e., the idea that everything that affects choice affects choice — matters to choice, and that policy ideas reflecting more realistic behavioral assumptions are desirable. You’d have to be an idiot to deny it. But beyond availing ourselves of better psychology, there no notable methodological or ideological advance there.

"Irrational" Choice and the Persistence of Lives Well-Lived

Say you think the falsehood of the homo economicus model provides some kind of special basis for a new kind of paternalism. Does that mean you think people up to now have been making a hash out of their lives? Maybe you do, which is why you think people continue to smoke or get really, really fat. But, look: lots of people manage to live a long time, save enough money for retirement, and even get along with their kids. How do they ever do it? It seems to me that strict rational choice assumptions are false and, also, most people do a fine job of living their lives. So, yeah: false theories of behavior tend not to do a very good job of accounting for lives well-lived. If you had thought that lives could not be well-lived unless some theory was true, then the persistence of good lives after the death of that theory ought to put the thought to rest, shouldn’t it?

John Cassidy on Libertarian Paternalism: Way Too Libertarian!

John Cassidy’s philosophically half-baked exploration of neuroeconomics a couple years back in the New Yorker inspired me to write an essay-length reply. I suspected then that he really liked what he erroneously saw as the paternalistic upshot of behavioral and neuro- economics, and was deliberately reading the results in a way that would seem to empower our benevolent stewards in government. Now, with his new NYRB review of Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge, his command-and-control inclinations are in plain view. Cassidy is visibly annoyed that Sunstein and Thaler don’t embrace full-throttle paternalism and behaviorally-enhanced Keynesian economic planning! Toward the end, he writes:

Once you concentrate on the reality that people often make poor choices, and that their actions can harm others as well as themselves, the obvious thing to do is restrict their set of choices and prohibit destructive behavior. Thaler and Sunstein, showing off their roots in the Chicago School, rule out this option a priori: “We libertarian paternalists do not favor bans,” they state blankly.

The obvious thing for whom to do? One of the great merits of Nudge is that Sunstein and Thaler grasp and largely avoid the fallacy of assymetric idealization. Cassidy obviously just doesn’t get it. So here you go… It is equally obvious that we ought to restrict the choices of people in government, since those people are people, and people so often make poor choices. Moreover, the harm from error in government policy is not limited to the ones choosing it, but instead affects millions. Indeed, the most destructive behavior in history has been that of governments, and so, obviously, we must prohibit it. Cassidy can escape this bind only if making bad choices is something done only by people other than the ones that vote for politicians, appoint bureaucrats, and actually set policy. Anyway, it’s pretty rich to see him slamming Sunstein and Thaler for not being as stupid as he is.

Cassidy goes on:

If you start out with the preconceptions about free choice of John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Hayek, it is difficult to get very far in the direction of endorsing active government. …

A refusal to accept that individual freedoms sometimes have to be curtailed for the general good is an extreme position even for a neoclassical economist to take, and it is alien to the traditions of the Democratic Party.

If Cassidy made it all the way to the end of Nudge, he will have noticed that the authors pretty clearly admit that they’re not against all bans — not against all good old-fashioned paternalism. They really really aren’t wild-eyed libertarians, which is why they forget to suggest rolling back existing paternalistic laws. But they are liberals of a certain stripe. Cassidy sounds like he just can’t stand the fact that the Democratic Party stands firmly inside the liberal tradition, which just is the tradition of John Stuart Mill. If anti-paternalism is alien to the Democratic Party, then genuine liberalism is alien to the Democratic Party, which would be too bad for the Democratic Party. Pretty much everyone agrees that “individual freedoms sometimes have to be curtailed for the general good.” The argument of Nudge is precisely that that “endorsing active government” need not be the same thing as thinking, like John Cassidy, that respect for individual freedom is a load of crap that necessarily gets in the way of a better technocracy.

And I can’t leave you without this:

Behavioral economics, by demonstrating how people often fall victim to confusion, myopia, and trend following, provides another convincing ratio-nale for Keynesian policies, but you wouldn’t realize that from reading Thaler and Sunstein.

Anyway, the gist here is that John Cassidy is the guy Jonah Goldberg is trying to warn you about.

Nussbaum on Sex Work

In all the dust of last month’s prostitution debate, I somehow missed philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s excellent op-ed, in which she espouses a view almost identical to the Howley-Wilkinson line.

Why are there laws against prostitution? All of us, with the exception of the independently wealthy and the unemployed, take money for the use of our body. Professors, factory workers, opera singers, sex workers, doctors, legislators — all do things with parts of their bodies for which others offer them a fee. Some people get good wages and some do not; some have a relatively high degree of control over their working conditions and some have little control; some have many employment options and some have very few. And some are socially stigmatized and some are not. However, the difference between the sex worker and the professor — who takes money for the use of a particularly intimate part of her body, namely her mind — is not the difference between a “good woman” and a “bad woman.” It is, usually, the difference between a prosperous well-educated woman and a poor woman with few employment options.


What should trouble us [about prostitution] are things like this: The working conditions for most women in sex work are extremely unhealthy. They are exploited by pimps, and they enjoy little control over which clients they will accept. Police harass them and extort sexual favors from them. Some of these bad features (unhealthiness, little control) sex work shares with other job options for low-income women, such as factory work of many kinds. Other bad features (police extortion) are the natural result of illegality itself.

In general we should be worried about poverty and lack of education. We should be worried that women have too few decent employment options and too little health and safety regulation in those that they do have. And we should be worried if men force women to do things sexually that they do not want to do. All these things are worth worrying about, and it is these things that sensible nations do worry about. But the idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque, the unmistakable fruit of the all-too-American thought that women who choose to have sex with many men are tainted, vile things who must be punished.

It’s great to see one of the world’s most important public intellectuals getting it right.

Choice Architecture and Paternalism

I’m trying to get clear on what Sunstein and Thaler mean, and it’s not easy, since they basically make up their own private language, and then act puzzled by the idea that some people might be a little confused by what they have in mind.

So a “choice architect” is basically anyone that organizes “the context in which people make choices.” This is so immensely broad as to be almost useless.

If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company health plan, you are a choice architect. If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect. If you are a salesperson, you are a choice architect.

And if you invite people to a party where alcohol is available, the music is bumpin’, and the lights are low, you are choice arcitecht. Everyone is a choice architect some of the time.

So what’s the relationship between ‘choice architect’ and ‘paternalist’? Is everyone a paternalist, too? It looks like it. According to S&T:

The paternalistic aspect [of libertarian paternalism] lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects [i.e., everybody] to try to influence people’s behavior ino order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. … In our understanding, a policy is “paternalistic” if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves. [Emphasis theirs.]

The designers of the user-friendly iPod, whom S&T tag as “choice architects,” presumably leave iPod users better off by their own lights, and therefore count as nudging libertarian paternalists. And who’s against usable interface design?! And if the host of a party turns down the lights, that‘s paternalistic choice architecture if it influences some of the guests’ behavior in a way that makes them better off, as judged by themselves.  This all very weird.

First, this has nothing to do with ‘paternalism’ as English speakers use the word. On their definition, giving someone accurate and easy-to-follow directions to the nearest gas station is paternalistic. But it isn’t, so they are using words wrong. To put it another way, S&T imply that it is not possible to provide helpful guidance to another person without being paternalistic. But it is possible. So they’re speaking literal nonsense. QED.

Another tack… They express a sufficient condition for paternalism here. They don’t say a policy or action isn’t paternalistic if it doesn’t makes people better off by their own lights, but the suggestion of an “only if” hangs out there, and I think they want it hanging out there. Paternalism is nice! Paternalism cares about getting people’s buy-in. Except… it doesn’t. The attempt to make you better off by my lights, not yours, is what a competent English speaker has in mind if she accuses me of being “paternalistic” — and that’s whether or not she assumes paternalism necessarily involves coercion, an assumption S&T call a “misconception”, despite the fact that most dictionaries and the history of Western thought generally insists on conceiving it that way. If you open up the little box that is the concept ordinarily expressed by the English word ‘paternalism’, you will find indifference to the endorsement or buy-in of those “influenced” by paternalistic efforts. But if you learned the meaning of the word from S&T, you’d think that was wrong!

The tone in Nudge is chummy and agreeable and sunnily ameliorist. Which makes you feel a bit like an axe-grinding killjoy bent on hair-splitting “semantics” when you insist on pointing out that they spend the entire book more or less inverting the normal meaning of certain politically-loaded words. But I really do insist on pointing it out, because these brilliant guys are native English speakers and they’ve got to know that the meanings of words matters. So you’re left wondering why they are so determined to play dumb about their own language.


The New York Times reports that a bunch of ex-military on-air “analysts” are in bed with both military contractors and the Bush administration:

Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.

Analysts have been wooed in hundreds of private briefings with senior military leaders, including officials with significant influence over contracting and budget matters, records show. They have been taken on tours of Iraq and given access to classified intelligence. They have been briefed by officials from the White House, State Department and Justice Department, including Mr. Cheney, Alberto R. Gonzales and Stephen J. Hadley.

In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated. Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access.

This is what governments do. Republican governments. Democratic governments. They spend their subjects’ money shaping their subjects’ opinions, so that they can spend more of their subjects’ money.

No doubt most of the talking head generals and colonels believe sincerely that they were acting in the best interests of the people they have devoted their lives to serving. It is simply that we “civilians” do not really know what we need to know in order to decide wisely for ourselves, and so public opinion needs to be massaged a bit to generate political support for policies that truly do protect us. If the well-meaning soft paternalism of concerted propaganda and financial self-interest happen to coincide, then all the better. Our guardians will only be better motivated to guard us! (And, really, after a lifetime of service, don’t they deserve to get theirs?) Crucially, no one here is forcing anyone to support the administration’s policies. It’s just a bit of a nudge, from people who know better.

The Place of Post-Constitutional Choice Architecture

In comments below, Berger asks this question in response to my concession of the non-neutrality of choice architecture, (which was in fact what I had in mind when posing the cryptic “dissertation topic” question about liberal neutrality at the bottom of the post):

It seems to me that if you concede that there is no such thing as neutral choice architecture then your objection to “libertarian paternalism” can’t really be that it interferes with free choice (because this is now inevitable) but that there’s some sort of intentionality or thought process that’s gone into disposing our architectures one way or another. But given that our various architectures are going to be biased one way or another, why not put some thought into those choices?

I have absolutely no objection whatsoever to “putting some thought” into how the way various rules are likely to frame and bias choice. Indeed, this is mandatory for anyone wishing to act effectively as an individual pursuing her aims, as a business owner, as a manager of workers or players, etc. My position is that, when it comes to politics, putative facts about our psychology that bear on how a candidate rule or institution will actually function should be an input to public deliberation. And there are a lot of other proper inputs. This is also my position about happiness research. A great deal of happiness research makes the somewhat embarrassing mistake of assuming that a scientific politics aims at happiness. But that’s just silly, since it’s not a scientific proposition that happiness is a rationally mandatory individual or social aim. Yet it’s good to know that this or that policy may tend to make us a bit happier. So, sure, let’s take that into consideration and we’ll see how much weight we decide to give it.

Now, a great deal of behavioral economics takes for granted that it is providing a technology for the design of institutions. This is much less silly. (That is, as long as the behavioralist is not smuggling in an under-motivated normative conception of rationality –often the very conception of economic rationality they have just descriptively debunked! — that is thought to uniquely identify the right rule). Institutions — policies, rules, procedures, etc. — do have to be created and implemented, and it is just negligent to refuse to take what we know about human behavior into account.

But it might be useful here to make a James Buchanan-inspired distinction between constitutional and post-constitutional political choice architecture. James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris et al were exquisite choice architects who availed themselves of the scientific psychology of their age (which may still be predictively superior to our own in many cases, even if they had the cognitive and emotional mechanisms wrong) when designing the U.S. Constitution. But what we’re doing when we’re doing public policy is quite far from what we’re doing when we’re designing a constitution, which is probably a bit disappointing to people like Thaler, Sunstein, and me.

Once you have a constitution, as we do, post-constitutional choice architecture must follow the rules laid down in the constitution. If we have a liberal constitution, as we do and ought to have, then the constitutional rules will give a large role to democratic representation and public deliberation. The point of liberal constitutional rules is precisely to bias political choice in the direction of liberty. If the population governed by the constitution continues to care about liberty, then they’ll try to protect the integrity of liberty-biased constitutional rules by protecting the authority of the liberal interpretation of those rules. When it comes to post-constitutional rule-making, the public throws the whole kitchen sink of competing values and candidate policies into public deliberation. And this is where libertarian paternalist proposals come in. In a liberal culture, liberal values will be preeminent. And a liberal constitution will bias the outcome in favor of liberty, assuming we’ve been able to preserve enough of the liberal sense of the constitutional rules.

Now, when we’re told that default rules for things like savings and organ donation make more of a difference than we thought in determining the outcome, that’s interesting and we ought to take it into account. But, as I said in yesterday’s post, default rules can have a meaning and tendency of their own that is somewhat independent of the immediate practical consequence of people acting within the frame of those rules (i.e. more savings, more available organs), and we ought to take that into account, too.

“Presumed consent” organ-harvesting rules may well increase the availability of organs. But it may also reinforce an illiberal norm about a presumed lack of self-ownership. Both considerations go into the hopper of public deliberation. Suppose we add the consideration that liberalized markets in organs would do even more than “presumed consent” to make organs available while at the same time strengthening norms of self-ownership. At that point, it’s pretty clear that the behavioralist view about the immediate practical consequence of the default rule is far from a trump. It’s also pretty clear that legalizing banned markets is often an extremely effective form of progressive choice architecture.

Markets in organs are often banned on straightforward hard paternalist grounds. The form of choice architecture that favors not banning mutually advantageous market exchanges might well be called libertarian anti-paternalism, which would be redundant, of course. So maybe we should just call it “libertarianism.”

In the end, we have to fight over what we want, and fight again over the policy mechanism that will deliver it. Libertarian paternalism doesn’t tell us what to want and may in some cases straightforwardly conflict with things we do want. Moreover, libertarian paternalist default rule rejiggering provides just one among a number of mechanisms for getting what we might want, like a greater supply of organs or a higher savings rate (how about Social Security personal accounts instead?!). But libertarian paternalism is not some kind of superspecial framework for scientifically enlightened policymaking. All we’ve really got here is some good new data on how people behave in certain kinds of scenarios. That’s got to be helpful, but it doesn’t tell us what to do.

[Note: I’m reviewing Nudge for Reason and I’ll be on a Cato panel with Sunstein and (maybe) Thaler next month, which I’m really looking forward to. So I’ll probably keep thinking out loud about this stuff for a while, especially once I get further into the book.]