A good question for civil servants

From the excellent Overcoming bias blog (ht Offsetting Behaviour):

This is a great test case for paternalists; if you feel that your superior minds justify ruling the lives of others, would do you accept having your life ruled by future folk with greatly enhanced minds?

To all those civil servants who tell me we should introduce regulation X because the average person is stupid and it is for their own good – think how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot.

Also stop being arrogant arseholes who think they are smarter than everyone else – actually try talking to these people you are judging and you might be surprised with their abilities …

20 replies
  1. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    I think this debate is more complex than you paint it here, and I think you know that. I don’t think the question posed on OB has a simple answer:

    Would those made or engineered to be born smart be within their rights to deprive the rest of our rights, presumably with a humanitarian intent?

    The question you pose is like asking “Who are you to tax us? How would you feel about me taking away your money because I think I can do better with it?” It’s an emotive question constructed to draw debate away from the very serious issues of social and economic structures that underlie it.

    Having said that, I don’t have any great insight into how we should structure our social system or how ability should influence a person’s role in society, sorry. I look forward to your analysis when you have more time to write 🙂

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    I don’t know that anyone has time to write a full analysis of the issue rauparaha – and I definitely don’t at the moment 🙂

    The debate about paternalism and the such IS more complicated than could be made out from this post.

    However, I get the impression that a number of policy makers don’t ask this question before they make policy – and if they did it might change their opinion regarding whether the policy is a good idea or not.

    I have heard a number of civil servants in NZ use the justification “the common person is stupid” for policy (Note: definitely not all – most civil servants I have met are caring, articulate, and analyse issues carefully) – and that isn’t good enough. Forcing them to ask this question might lead them to figure out if the policy is actually justified or if it is a result of their own inflated sense of worth.

    Trust me, I believe in externality taxes, I believe in mechanisms that allow us to pre-commit to actions, I believe that the government can change the institutional structure of the economy to improve outcomes – but neither of these forms of policies would fail the “question test”.

    Policies that RELY solely on the idea that people are “too stupid to choose what they want” (Note: This is a quote from someone) are unacceptable – and hopefully this question makes that a little more obvious.

  3. goonix
    goonix says:

    Strong words from Matt but I must say I get annoyed with that all-too-common attitude too.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Indeed – my language is a touch stronger than usual. I just get a little sick of the elitist and paternalistic talk in Wellington now and again.

    It can be a shock for a country boy like myself – especially once you realise that they actually mean it …

  5. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    I wonder if this is the first time Matt has sworn in a blog post?

    I’m used to hearing Matt’s filthy mouth in real life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on paper though:)

  6. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    This is the one occasion I have let go – but I think I have good reason.

    Doesn’t it seem arrogant to anyone else that there are some people who think we are too stupid to think for ourselves – I find that very very difficult.

  7. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    I see it more as a belief that the bureacrats can make better decisions than most people because they’re smarter on average and better informed. Those two things may well be true in many cases. It really comes down to weighing the loss of freedom against the expected gain in welfare, doesn’t it? And that’s undoubtedly a value judgment 😉

    I would note that bureacratic dictatorship isn’t all that unpopular around these parts: anyone in favour of giving bureaucrats control of taxation???

  8. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    “I see it more as a belief that the bureacrats can make better decisions than most people because they’re smarter on average and better informed. Those two things may well be true in many cases.”

    I don’t know if a bureaucrat is actually better informed about my preferences than I am – so I am apt to disagree with that.

    “I would note that bureacratic dictatorship isn’t all that unpopular around these parts: anyone in favour of giving bureaucrats control of taxation???”

    Given that the tax example is completely different I don’t see any contradiction – and I think you are being a bit cheeky by suggesting it.

    By giving civil servants the ability to set tax rates we ensure that the budget is balanced over the medium term – and governments can’t try to screw each other over. I am not talking about giving civil servants the ability to set social policy willy nilly.

    Remember in the tax case the government controls spending – and so implicitly controls the level of taxes. Bureaucrats in this case are just a computer program that moves a lever as the government makes the real choice.

    Now if you let civil servants determine where wind farms are built without any public consultation, then we would have an issue. And there are some civil servants that believe we should be allowed to do that – because the people on the land are too stupid to realise that this is actually what they want.

  9. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    No, they may not know your preferences but they may have a better idea about the welfare function. People on the land may not want the wind farm, but it may still be the socially optimal place to put it. In that case I would say that bureaucrats probably know better, although what I really mean is that people’s individually optimal choice often isn’t the socially optimal choice.

  10. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    I see I see – why isn’t there a market based, or compensation choice that satisfies this problem then?

    If you can’t compensate someone for the movement then it seems to be weird to say that it is socially optimal …

  11. Dismal Soyanz
    Dismal Soyanz says:

    Hmmm. Take nimbyism for example. If the guhmint believes that a hydro dam must be built on river X, then those who live along river X are likely to oppose it. Will they move for enough money? Many will but there will always be someone for whom money is no compensation for their loss of home, memories, heritage, etc. Monetary compensation doesn’t work and it requires the state to compulsory buy the land and evict current owners.

    But this digresses from the original post. Clearly there are rules which are for our own good (minimum age for purchasing alcohol?). Is there an objective way of measuring when the social loss of inaction is sufficiently large that regulation is required? Perhaps in special circumstances but I doubt there is a universally applicable answer.

  12. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    That’s very true, which is why I didn’t say pareto optimal. In a Kaldor-Hicks sense it may still be optimal. Take the wind farm as an example. The energy company’s profits may be less than the private cost to the local residents affected, but the benefit to other consumers is unlikely to get transferred unless the government steps in and takes it out of taxes. In that case the bureaucrats need to make an assessment of what’s best and either transfer to the residents or just allow the farm and screw the residents. Either way, we’d be worse off if the govt didn’t do something. I don’t see that as an extraordinary situation, either.

  13. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Dismal Soyanz

    If the loss for a person can’t be compensated by offering them the social benefit it doesn’t sound like an optimal policy.

    I guess fundamentally my real concern lies with the attitude of some policy makers – that they need to look after us because we are stupid. If they merely thought about how they felt if things were the other way around they might change their minds.

    We want policy makers that do what is socially optimal – not what rubs their ego.

  14. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Indeed – and in that case they could compensate landowners right.

    But if they offer compensation that equals what they expect social benefit is – and people still say they value staying on the land more – then would it be fair to assume the policy isn’t socially optimal, I think so.

    I have met civil servants that say that is rubbish – and that the land owners are too stupid to realise that it is in their interest. It just isn’t how policy makers should justify pushing residents around.

    After all civil servants are supposed to “serve” the people’s express will – not tell them what their will is

  15. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Although, for this specific example there is the argument that people will “hold out” on signing up if they think they can extract a greater surplus by “holding-up” the process – if everyone is trying to hold-up the process then we might not be able to get it through in a socially efficient manner.

    Of course – for the sake of discussion I recognise that you abstracted away from this issue, so would could discuss the more central conceptual issues 🙂

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