Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thaler Knows Best

Apparently the federal government is recruiting a "nudge squad"--behaviorists who will figure out how to move us in the right direction.  It's already been tried in Britain with great success, according to the people who support such programs.

I've been interested in the Nudge movement since it was popularized--some would say created--by the book Nudge written by my old friend Cass Sunstein along with economist Richard Thaler.

Thaler, of course, thinks it's a great idea. In fact, it's hard for him to understand the opposition:

I don't know who those people are who would not want such a program, but they must either be misinformed or misguided. The goal is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government by using scientifically collected evidence to inform policy designs. What is the alternative? The only alternatives I know are hunches, tradition, and ideology (either left or right.)

Well, Mr. Thaler, I can think of other alternatives.  For instance, a bias in favor of leaving people alone to run their lives.  Perhaps the government behaviorists will make mistakes in deciding what people should do, and their mistakes will be systematic, not to mention one-size-fits-all.

And perhaps having such a program will lead to bureaucrats who believe it should be applied to ever smaller and more personal aspects of our lives.  You may claim the program is just to advise on what the government is already doing, but even if that's the plan (and I question if it is) it hardly tells us where we'll end up.

And perhaps such a program, if it's considered a success, might be taken over by partisans who'll use it for political ends.

Now Mr. Thaler, don't get me wrong.  I do think I know a lot of things better than you do. (For instance, if I were in control of your life you'd never have said what you did.) But are you willing to give up control to me, or at least allow me to make it tougher for you to try to do things differently? If you don't, maybe you can understand why some people are at least a little nervous about giving government, which already has a official monopoly on rulemaking, yet a new program that could easily lead them to find more ways to make our decisions for us.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that Thaler guy has the chops to get this done, actually.

But if he can get it started, perhaps someone with a bit more substance can come along later and really make it hum.

Then things'll be good.

2:23 AM, July 31, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your argument is that you rely on government being run inefficiently since it supports your core belief that government is inefficient.


11:30 AM, July 31, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

The belief in small government does rely on the idea that the government can do certain things well but should leave a large domain to the people to run their lives. In fact, that's what government is for--to set up a system where people are free to make their own decisions.

Even if the government were only run by true and modest experts with nothing but your best interests at heart, there are still systematic reasons why top-down regulation is inefficient in all sorts of situations.

12:27 PM, July 31, 2013  

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