Public Choice

, Volume 178, Issue 1–2, pp 31–52 | Cite as

Evolving hierarchical preferences and behavioral economic policies

  • Jan SchnellenbachEmail author


This paper critically discusses the standard concept of hierarchical preferences, which presupposes that a stable system of higher- and lower-order preferences exists, wherein the former contains an individual’s fundamental purposes and values, while the latter guides everyday choices. It is argued that systems of hierarchical preferences suffer from problems similar to those of standard preferences, in terms of rationality, that they also are potentially unstable and can change, for example, in response to individual experiences. It is furthermore argued that higher-order preferences may not be coherent internally, because their different parts result from different kinds of reasoning. Finally, it is argued that behavioral economic policies, such as soft paternalism, easily can endanger the autonomy and integrity of an individual as a person.


Hierarchical preferences Multiple selves Internalities Behavioral policies Paternalism Nudge 

JEL Classification

D11 D18 D63 D83 H11 Z18 



I am grateful to participants at the Bremen conference of the German Economic Association (Committee on Evolutionary Economics), the Freiburg conference of the European Public Choice Society, the Manchester conference of the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy, the research seminar at the University of Leipzig for comments and, in particular, to Stefan Okruch and Roger Congleton for in-depth discussions of earlier versions of this paper. To an even greater extent, I am indebted to the late Gebhard Kirchgässner, who disagreed with some of the arguments presented herein, but whose criticism always has been challenging and constructive. Finally, I am also grateful to three anonymous referees and the Editor of this journal for very constructive comments. All remaining errors are entirely my own responsibility.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Economics, Chair for MicroeconomicsBTU Cottbus-SenftenbergCottbusGermany

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