The tyranny of positivism


Anyone who is not a positivist before 25 has no brain; anyone who is still a positivist after age 40 has no heart.

[Positivists promote] the tyranny of the lonely genius, seeking by contemplation in his warm room a universal system to impose upon us all.

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Does libertarianism apply to animals, too?

Frances Woolley at Worthwhile Canadian initiative:

An average dog might prefer, say, chocolate over dry kibble. Yet an average dog owner has no qualms about ignoring the dog’s preferences and feeding the dog kibble over chocolate. Chocolate can kill a dog.

In the same way, an average human might prefer, say, soft drinks over water. Excessive soft drink consumption leads to a variety of health problems, such as increased risk of diabetes. Yet any attempt to encourage people to consume water rather than soft drinks through, for example, soda taxes, or bans on super-size soft drinks, is extremely controversial.

Why is it acceptable to limit animals’ choices, but not humans’?

Any economists who find this inherently daft might want to revisit Singer’s work on the subject from a utilitarian perspective.

Habit formation and the economic core

I have repeatedly been informed that the “economic man” is a poor description of individuals, and given this economic models provide a poor description of the world we live in.  As I have said previously, I don’t agree with this conclusion – and we really need to ask what an economic model is, and why we are using it, to understand the scope of economics and the appropriateness of the assumptions.

In essence my view is that we use economic models to describe, and in some way explain, tendencies that exist (from induction) using assumptions about choice that satisfy two conditions:

  1. They are as weak and loosely binding as possible
  2. They are appealing in the sense that, when I ask myself about my actions I can deduce laws that guide them.  I could go a step further and say that we can set up “ideal experiments” in our minds, but I’ll leave that for now.

This is all well and good.  But then someone will say “what about habit formation“.  This is an important issue, people obviously develop habits and these habits bind and constrain behaviour.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that habits, and the formation of habits, provide the key to tying together a lot of different strands in experiments and behavioural economics – and that an understanding of habits and habit formation is an important part of improving economists way to describe the world and give advice.

So how do we “describe habits”?

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Who’s scared of paternalism?

Eric has pointed me to the discussion that happened at Cato Unbound over libertarian/new paternalism. It went a bit like this:

Glen Whitman alleges:

New paternalist policies, and indeed the intellectual framework of new paternalism itself, create a serious risk of slippery slopes toward ever more intrusive paternalism.

Richard Thaler (a founding father of LP) replies:

[The] risk of the slippery slope appears to be a figment of Professor Whitman’s imagination… Slope-mongering is a well-worn political tool used by all sides in the political debate to debunk any idea they oppose. For example, when the proposal was made to replace the draft with an all-volunteer army, the opponents said this would inevitably lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences because we were turning our military into a band of mercenaries… Instead of slope-mongering we should evaluate proposals on their merits.

My favourite commentary on the debate was Robin Hanson’s:

As far as I’m concerned, all of these authors avoid the core hard problem. Yes paternalism can be a matter of degree, but even so we need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context. Just repeating ‘More’ and ‘Less’ quickly gets tiresome. Such principles need to explicitly take into account the fact that organizations can give folks advice instead of limiting their choices.

It highlights how the argument often ignores the key normative question: how paternalistic should governments be? I’m constantly surrounded by people arguing from a fairly libertarian, utilitarian perspective so I’m curious about how the other half thinks. For instance, what’s the justification for trying to stamp out smoking? Which modern philosophers have supported positions that economists would refer to as hard paternalism, and why?

More on slippery slopes and nudges

In a follow up post about nudges and shoves Eric recommends a piece by David Friedman on slippery slopes that argues:

An optional charge where the default choice is to pay it is the sort of thing Sunstein and Thaler propose, a nudge in the direction of doing what those responsible believe, possibly correctly, that most of those nudged would want to do if they took the time to think about it. But the people constructing the choice architecture know what result they want to get, they believe they are doing good and so not constrained by what they themselves would consider proper principles of morality and honesty in a commercial context, so it is very easy to make the “wrong” choice more and more difficult and obscure until what is optional in theory becomes mandatory in practice.

Essentially, the argument is that once you start meddling with people’s choices it’s very hard to avoid imposing your own views of the world. The idea behind nudges is that you help people to make the best choice from their own perspective, not yours, but that’s very hard to do in practice.

As far as it goes, that sounds very sensible and Friedman is probably right that people trying to nudge others are likely to stray in paternalistic territory. However, what the argument is missing is a plausible counterfactual. The choice architects will still need to frame people’s choices in some way. If they use nudges as their guiding principle then they will attempt to frame the choice to maximise the expected benefit to the person making the choice. As Friedman cautions, the architect may not be very good at divining the preferences of others and may end up being more paternalistic than they intended. But the alternative is not that the choice disappears, or that it is not framed in some way. The alternative must be some other guiding principle for framing the choice.

One possibility is randomisation, but there are many instances in which that will result in terrible choices for most people becoming the default. It seems hard to justify that position. A more likely alternative is that the framer will use their own preferences to guide the framing of the choice. The outcome is likely to be rather paternalistic and not at all to Friedman’s liking! It’s all very well to suggest imperfections in the mechanism for framing choices but imperfection doesn’t mean it’s not the best of the bunch.

Slippery slopes are dangerous places

Apparently New York is banning large soft drink cup sizes to reduce sugar consumption and obesity. Eric has used this as a launchpad for a slippery slope argument attacking libertarian paternalism (LP). The original idea of Sunstein and Thaler was that you could design choices to minimise the likelihood of bad decisions without restricting choice. Every time people make a choice the person providing the choice gets to frame it. The premise is that, if they can do that in a way that helps people to make a good decision, then they should.

A ban on large soft drink cups would clearly not be a ‘nudge’ in the sense that Thaler and Sunstein mean it. It would restrict the choice set of diners so it’s purely paternalistic. That’s probably why Eric has pivoted to attacking the idea of nudges as being too easy for politicians to misinterpret:

For all the protests that “nudge” was supposed to have strong opt-out provisions, it was awfully predictable that it wouldn’t turn out that way in practice. I don’t know how much time Thaler spent working to ensure choice was preserved in his proposed choice-preserving architecture, but he did spend a bit of time telling libertarians that this sort of thing couldn’t happen.

This argument against LP is silly for a number of reasons.

  1. First, as Eric acknowledges, the proposed regulation doesn’t fall within the set of mechanisms described by Sunstein and Thaler. The ban isn’t within the ambit of LP.
  2. Secondly, products have been banned for health reasons since long before LP existed. Even if the ban can be described as LP, it would have happened anyway.
  3. Thirdly, misuse of a concept by others is a cost that needs to be balanced against the benefits of the concept when used appropriately. Even if LP is responsible for the ban, it may still be a helpful idea for motivating regulation

Thaler and Sunstein have pointed to many instances in which better choice architecture would result in welfare increases. Even if they can be held responsible for bans such as this — which I find a stretch — the concept could still be beneficial in sum. I’m reminded of the way many economic concepts are misapplied to justify investment in stadiums, limits on alcohol sales, or restrictions in foreign investment. I don’t hear many complaints from economists that the whole idea of economics is a slippery slope to terrible policy and I don’t see how LP is different: it’s a useful idea that can help shape great policy. Unfortunately, there will always be a few people who misuse it to further their own ends. That doesn’t make it a bad idea.