Is There a Problem With "Libertarian Paternalism"?

From this artilce in the NYT:

Mr. Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School suggested that it is proper for the government, or an employer, to set boundaries to choice to achieve desired social objectives, an approach they call “libertarian paternalism.”

Government, employer. Same thing.


This last clause of that sentence captures the deep tension between paternalist welfarism and democracy as the means of republican self-government. If it is known in advance which “social objectives” it is “desirable” to achieve, then the technocrats can “set boundaries to choice” to bias the process of social choice in the favor of these objectives. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. A constitutional convention, for example, is all about setting boundaries to achieve desired social objectives. But at the post-constitutional phase, the state's “setting boundaries” in this way can amount to an illiberal and anti-democratic imposition of parochial values. Liberals who see the basis of state legitimacy in a kind of deliberative democratic procedure have to eschew technocratic framing or bounding of the choice set. But it's easy to press too hard on this point. If you're going to have an adminstrative bureaucracy, it's going to issue regulations. And I sure want to say that some regulatory institutions (a market in pollution credits, for example) are better than others (say, demanding an across-the-board reduction). I think the distinction has to lie in they WAY boundaries to choice are set, and the KIND of constraints the boundary setting process imposes.

Blackburn v. Rationalists

I'm sure Blackburn isn't being altogether fair to Sam Kerstein (a friend and former professor) in this paper [.pdf], but I very much liked the overall gist of his argument. And I liked the conclusion, which puts me in mind of an ongoing conversation I've had with Julian over the last few years.

…the kinds of [rationalist] argument [against expressivism or sentimentalism] I have been discussing, are very deep-rooted. Partly, they represent a noble dream. They answer a wish that the knaves of the world can be not only confined and confounded, but refuted – refuted as well by standards that they have to acknowledge. Ideally, they will be shown to be in a state akin to self-contradiction. Kerstein acknowledges that Kant and neo-Kantians have not achieved anything like this result. But it is still, tantalizingly there as a goal or ideal, the Holy Grail of moral philosophy, and many suppose that all right-thinking people must join the pilgrimage to find it.

We sentimentalists do not like our good behaviour to be hostage to such a search. We don’t altogether approve of Holy Grails. We do not see the need for them. We are not quite on all fours with those who do. And we do not quite see why, even if by some secret alchemy a philosopher managed to glimpse one, it should ameliorate his behaviour, let alone that of other people. We think instead that human beings are ruled by passions, and the best we can do it to educate people so that the best passions are also the most forceful. We say of rationalistic moral philosophy what Hume says of abstract reasonings in general, that when we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning.


Democracy and Deception

There was a lot wrong with Max Sawicky's part in his WSJ debate with Tyler. This bit in particular exemplifies a mode of thought that really bugs me, and ought to bug people who care about democracy:

. . . the mission of the public sector in my view goes well beyond aid to the poor. Even in those terms, I pity the poor who wind up isolated in a ghetto of means-tested programs. Programs for the poor isolate their beneficiaries politically and end up poorly supported.

Here we have a nice statement of the principle that it is politically necessary to delude a broad swathe of the electorate into thinking they're getting something out of a “social insurance” scheme, when, in fact, they get less than nothing, so that they will support welfare payments to people who really need it. The problem with means-tested welfare benefits is: big benefits will not be democratically popular, so, insofar as it is possible, the issue must be taken out of the domain of democratic choice.

Last night at the AFF panel on social security, Dean Baker made some point about how popular Social Security-as-we-know-it is, and that we live in a democracy, so if you don't like it, well, too bad. I thought this was an extremely disingenous argument. From what I could make of him, Baker is an ideologue like Sawicky, and if it turned out that the democratic public became persuaded to radically alter the historical treasure of social policy that is Social Security, Baker would not just shrug and say, “Oh well, that's democracy. The General Will has spoken!”

Is "Superannuation" a Risk?

One of the mantras of social security reform obstructionists is: “Don't think about rates of return. It's social insurance stupid!”

That is, SS is a big risk pooling scheme, and it's working just fine if you're sufficiently insulated against risk. Expecting a high rate of return is just a category error. You would be glad if you pay money to GEICO, say, and never get a dime back. The point was that they were there to cover you if you ever did get in an accident. And if you never do, and never see a cent, well then lucky you.

Now, the parts of the system that aren't up for reform are unemployment and disability benefits. The big controversy is over retirement. But getting old and retiring isn't a risk. Not these days. It's a near certainty. Thinking of retirement as a risk that one needs to be protected against is like thinking about sending one's kids to college as a risk. Losing your arm in a combine, and thereby losing your livelihood, is an unpredictable low probability event. It could happen to you, but probably won't. Paying your rent, sending your kids to college, or retiring are highly predictable, high probability events. You need to take responsibility and prepare for them, not be “insured” against the inevitability.

You can get a feel for the difference between the economic and demographic conditions in the early part of the 20th Century by thinking about this passage from Henry Rogers Seager's Social Insurance, among the first systematic treatises on the topic, published way back in 1910:

If the need is one the wage earner clearly forsees as certain to arise, then I should be the last person to wish to relieve him of responsibility for meeting it. If, for example, we were discussing means of helping wage earners to pay their rent, I should say that the only safe means are measures designed to increase their energy, ambition, and efficiency. Only in extreme cases should a need of this sort be met by outside help. But the future needs we are considering are not of this sort. Many wage earners go through life without being the victims of industrial accidents, without serious illness, never lacking for work, and not living long enough to become superannuated. These are all risks to which wage earners are exposed, not certain needs which they can clearly foresee.

See, in 1910 one couldn't expect to live long enough to face the problem of supporting oneself after one is no longer able to work. Nor could you in 1935. That's why the age for benefit eligibilty was set right around the age of expected death. But the whole idea of a long period of retirement is a function of massively increased lifespans. It's just no longer a “risk” that one will get old and stop working well before one dies. Retirement is now in the category of events that, as Seager puts it, “the wage earner clearly forsees as certain to arise.” And thus, the author of the ur-text of American social insurance is, “the last person to wish to relieve him of responsibility for meeting it.”

So, what? All those folks who insist on talking about retirement as a risk one needs to be insured againt are the ones committing a category error. That's what.

Strategic Vagueness vs. Rallying Clarity

I've been surprised by the weakness of the conservative grassroots push for social security reform. Here's some illumination from The Note:

When the President first enunciated his Social Security principles, business groups, prodded by the White House, said they'd spend millions to influence public opinion. That was predicated on the Administration's announcing its support for a precise proposal early.

“We haven't done it because Bush doesn't have a plan yet,” said the Free Enterprise Fund's Steve Moore. “It's hard for anyone to mobilize conservative activists and conservative money until we all know that it's a plan that's worth mobilizing for.”

But, as I understand it, Bush doesn't have a precise plan because he needs the ability to negotiate with Democrats in order to get a bill through Congress. That's why he keeps saying that “everything's on the table.” I think this may have been a huge mistake. First, by not endorsing a specific plan, you allow the opposition to play the vagueness to their advantage and to impute an unattractive plan to the administration, around which they can rally resistance. Second, you leave yourself and your advocates unable to defend your plan against the opposition. All you can say is: “That's not the plan I have in mind.” Third, your grassroots support has nothing to rally around, and so keeps the money in the bank, as the AARP, Big Labor, etc., run riot. The public's attention span for the issue may be short. So it's a big loss to lose out in the first few rounds of the PR battle.

All this has to weighed against the bargaining advantages of public open-endedness about policy. But if you lose the public opinion war too badly, in part because of the strategy of vagueness, then the bargaining advantages of vagueness start to dissipate.

I hope that the adminstration's doing some kind of rope-a-dope, and letting the anti-reform forces start to feel complacently self-congratulatory before wheeling out the big guns, and mobilizing the massive grassroots PR assault. I mean, that could happen, right?

The Importance of Caring About Harry Frankfurt

From Lindsay Beyerstein's comments in her post about freezing in line to see Harry Frankfurt talk about his book On Bullshit on the Daily Show, here's the segment.

I found it delightful to see a real philosopher on The Daily Show. And I was pleased to see that Stewart was smart enough to have genuine respect for a genuinely erudite and wise man like Frankfurt.

For those of you who didn't have to read any Frankfurt essays in grad school, he is a philosopher of unusual sensitivity, creativity, subtlety, and depth. He is most well known for his work on free will, especially his famous thought experiment designed to show that the openness of alternative possibilities is not a necessary condition for freedom. Frankfurt's work on the structure of the self, and the relation between higher and lower order aims and desires, is central to contemporary discussion of the nature of agency. And Frankfurt's ideas about care and love as sources of normativity I find to be more satisfactory than almost all the alternatives.

If you're one of those people who thinks that contemporary analytic philosophy is obscure, scholastic, and irrelevant to real human concerns, you need to read Harry Frankfurt.

Here's an interview with Frankfurt on “the necessity of love.” [.pdf]

And here you can see video of Frankfurt in his natural habitat giving a lecture on “Some Mysteries of Love” at UC Riverside in 2000. [Realplayer]

Books at Amazon:

The Importance of What We Care About
Necessity, Volition, and Love
The Reasons of Love

Taboo, Coordination, and the Game of Reasons

The other night I was talking to my roommates about family, communes, thick normative concepts, and the nature of not-further-questionable reasons for action. Among our topics: Can “Because she's your sister” be sufficient reason for doing something? Why “Why should I care that she's my sister,” is both a necessary and unacceptable question.

This bit of Pinker's excellent discussion of the Summers controversy reminded me of our conversation, which had absolutely nothing to do with women and math:

What are we to make of the breakdown of standards of intellectual discourse in this affair–the statistical innumeracy, the confusion of fairness with sameness, the refusal to glance at the scientific literature? It is not a disease of tenured radicals; comparable lapses can be found among the political right (just look at its treatment of evolution). Instead, we may be seeing the operation of a fascinating bit of human psychology.

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo–the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them–is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense. In 2000, he reported asking university students their opinions of unpopular but defensible proposals, such as allowing people to buy and sell organs or auctioning adoption licenses to the highest-bidding parents. He found that most of his respondents did not even try to refute the proposals but expressed shock and outrage at having been asked to entertain them. They refused to consider positive arguments for the proposals and sought to cleanse themselves by volunteering for campaigns to oppose them. Sound familiar?

The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. We have to show that our heart is in the right place and that we don't weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. The appropriate response is to refuse even to consider the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don't understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen. (The logic of taboo underlies the horrific fascination of plots whose protagonists are agonized by unthinkable thoughts, such as Indecent Proposal and Sophie's Choice.) Sacred and tabooed beliefs also work as membership badges in coalitions. To believe something with a perfect faith, to be incapable of apostasy, is a sign of fidelity to the group and loyalty to the cause. Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong.

At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred. The reasons are understandable: Women really had been held back by bogus claims of essential differences. Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as “not getting it” when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

Pinker points toward the coordinative functions of taboo. Adherence to taboos signals unconditional cooperation or an unconditional disposition to punish (usually the latter), providing a clear structure for coordination. Because family solidarity is, in most cultural contexts, so important, defecting on a family member has the character of a taboo. The taboo authorizes extreme reprisals and often requires altruistic punishment that is “irrational” in the technical sense, but which creates a payoff structure that is not a prisoner’s dilemma, i.e., in which it is not rational to defect.

So if I say, “Because she’s your sister.” And you say, “Why should that matter?” it is not that you’re asking an essentially illegitimate question, but that you have signaled non-commitment to the taboo-laden game structure, and thus identified yourself as a potential defector who must be given some additional reason not to defect. There may be some additional reason that is readily available. But insofar as speech acts are moves in the game, the correct response may not be to provide the additional reason, but to begin altruistic punishment immediately in an attempt to reinstate the more reliably cooperative game structure. So, it would not be unexpected, nor necessarily strategically irrational for “Why should I care that she’s my sister?” to be answered with a hard slap to the face.

But a slap in the face is, as Pinker puts it, “incompatible with the ideal of scholarship,” or rational inquiry. If the game is inquiry, then we have to question the taboos. One might worry that the entire family solidarity taboo structure is unjustified, especially given the cultural evolution of family structure. Fair enough. But then it is crucial to make it abundantly plain what game is being played. And if you attempt to play the inquiry game with your family, they might fairly suspect that your motivation to introduce the inquiry game is really to change the structure of the family game, which they will likely resist. So you end up in a third game, where the inquiry game is resisted in order to prevent the introduction of uncertainty into the family game by the rational undermining of stable norms.

(Now that I think of it in these terms, I realize that I played this third kind of game constantly with my mother in Sunday school. I would ask what I took to be a penetrating theological question, and she would resist answering on the terms of the game I had introduced, lest she undermine the norms of faith to which she was attempting to commit her son.)