I say, again and again, that it is an embarrassing non-sequitur to argue that people are “irrational” and then leap to the conclusion that they need benevolent paternal guidance from the state. After all, if people are irrational then voters are irrational, politicians are irrational, bureaucrats are irrational, etc. To this, Ezra Klein responds:
I'm not sure what exactly it is that Will finds so inexplicable here. Behavioral research often finds that consumers act irrationally in certain situations. So given a specific set of constraints, they may underestimate future risk, prove oversensitive to loss, exhibit significant status quo bias, and so on and so forth. All problems.
Now, the government may be made up of people, but it is not made up of people carrying out transactions under these conditions.
Perhaps Ezra is right, but only because people acting inside government institutions are much less likely to themselves bear the cost of their mistakes, and will therefore likely make more of them. There is no way to wriggle out of the fact that people who win elections are just like the rest of us.
I really wish people would pay more attention to Vernon Smith, who invented experimental economics, won the Nobel Prize for it, and remains by far the most philosophically rigorous theorist of the relationship between individual rationality and institutional performance. (Ted Bergstrom's paper here [pdf] is a good overview.) What Smith's work shows is that, yes, individuals in isolation don't act according to canonical postulates of rationality, but that well-structured market institutions will nevertheless tend to converge on the efficient outcome, as if the agents were behaving with full “rationality”, even though they are in fact limited, confused, and ignorant. The “rationality” of the outcome is more a function of the structure of the institution than of the “rationality” of those acting inside it.
Responsible social science therefore compares the way real people perform when embedded in different real-world institutional settings. What you surely don't do is perform selective empirical work to discover an “anomaly” in decision making, and then deploy a priori high theory to infer that one set of institutions (markets) won't work, because, in fact, the performance of a market institution might turn out to be indifferent to the anomaly or limitation. That's what Smith has proved. If you're going to be an empiricist, then be an empiricist, and actually test the effect of the anomaly in the performance of the relevant institutions. Until you do this, it's either arbitrary, naive, or willfully ideological to posit another set of institutions (government) as a fix. Because there may be nothing to fix. And, even if there is, government may be the wrong kind of institution to fix it. You've got to run the experiment.
There is a great deal of carelessness in generalizing the results of anomaly-focused behavioral economics. As Steven Levitt and John List write in their short article on behavioral economics in Science ($$$) this month:
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing behavioral economics is demonstrating its applicability in the real world. In nearly every instance, the strongest empirical evidence in favor of behavioral anomalies emerges from the lab. Yet, there are many reasons to suspect that these laboratory findings might fail to generalize to real markets. We have recently discussed several factors, ranging from properties of the situation — such as the nature and extent of scrutiny — to individual expectations and the type of actor involved. For example, the competitive nature of markets encourages individualistic behavior and selects for participants with those tendencies. Compared to lab behavior, therefore, the combination of market forces and experience might lessen the importance of these qualities in everyday markets.
List has run a number of field experiments that show that this is the case. Smith has run a number of lab experiments that show that the frequency of a “mistake” goes down as the cost of making it goes up.
An easy example is the research on opt-out 401(k)s. We know, from the economists, that investing in 401(k)s is generally a wise idea. We know, from the statisticians, that far fewer people do it than should. We know, from the behavioralists, that far more people would do it if the default setting put you in the 401(k), rather than forced you to wander down to HR and specifically ask for it. And so folks in the government, acting with more information and in a different context than folks in an office, think up a policy to “recognize the power of inertia in human behavior and enlist it to promote, rather than hinder, saving.”
At exactly which point in this process does Will fear that the same irrationality that keeps someone from creating a retirement account will foul up a regulator's efforts to ease their way into a retirement account?
As I said to Dan Ariely in our chat, I think behavioral work is really valuable, especially when it suggests to us how people might better structure their affairs to get more of what they want. I think the evidence shows that 401(k) opt-out defaults are often a good idea, and that businesses ought to make that part of their standard labor contract, if that is something that they think would be appealing to their prospective employees.
I also think that this minor fact about the general distaste for filling out complicated forms can hardly be used to justify further encroachments on the right of individuals to negotiate the terms of their contracts with employers. I think Ezra's argument here is both strangely narrow and ungenerously extreme. I don't doubt that non-terrible policies are sometimes successfully enacted. To doubt that would be a bit like a market skeptic doubting that anyone ever succeeds in buying a candy bar. That would be terrifically dense. What I doubt, very strongly, is that the discovery of “irrationalities” undermines the authority of market institutions more than it undermines the authority of government institutions. Are people more or likely to behave irrationally when voting for their congressman or when buying a sandwich? Do buyers for private organizations sign contracts for $76 screws? Etc.
So, no. I don't fear the mandatory opt out 401(k) plans in particular will be a giant debacle. But I do fear that half-baked behavioral economics is being used to undermine support for market institutions in general, way ahead of the evidence. And I fear that a fundamentally confused assault on “rationality” is being used successfully to promote paternalistic control by elites and, necessarily, to encourage the docility of those who are to be controlled.
[Added: If you have not read Ed Glaeser's “Paternalism and Psychology” [pdf], then you probably should.]