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Should evolutionary economists embrace libertarian paternalism?

Abstract

Libertarian paternalists hold that biases and distortions in human decision-making justify paternalistic interference affecting individuals’ decisions. The aim of this paper is to analzye to what extent an evolutionary outlook supports libertarian paternalism. I will put forward three arguments in favour of libertarian paternalism and six objections that strongly oppose it. While evolutionary economists should take seriously the contention that our positive knowledge of real-world decision-making will have to influence our normative assessment of these decisions, the objections against libertarian paternalism brought forward in this paper serve as a cautionary note. Contrary to the claims of its proponents, libertarian paternalism is neither inevitable, nor does it provide an adequate measuring rod of normative rationality. It is prone to abuse by anchoring its standard of rationality pragmatically to norms and can thus promote conservative bias and stifle innovative exploration. It also presents the policy-maker with a compounded Hayekian knowledge problem. Finally, from a dynamic point of view, libertarian paternalism’s manipulative shaping of preferences might lock-in individuals into heteronomous preference learning paths without them being even aware of it.

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Notes

  1. To be clear: while this seems to be the mainstream position in behavioural economics, one could use cognitive limitations also to justify non-intervention in a spirit of Hayek’s “knowledge problem” argument (Hayek 1945). I will take up this very point later on in the paper and argue that cognitive limitations or a shortfall in “economic rationality” will not automatically justify intervention.

  2. See also Schubert and Cordes (2013) as well as Schubert (2012b) who discuss how libertarian paternalism can be used to deal with dysfunctional preference learning. Lades (2012) analyses the underlying motivational mechanisms of impulsive consumption and the potential of self-nudges from an evolutionary perspective.

  3. A slightly less compact but more precise definition is: “X acts paternalistically towards Y by doing (omitting) Z iff (1) Z (or its omission) interferes with the liberty or autonomy of Y. (2) X does so without the consent of Y. (3) X does so just because Z will improve the welfare of Y (where this includes preventing his welfare from diminishing), or in some way promote the interests, values, or good of Y.” (Dworkin 2010, no page number given). All three conditions could be subjected to further philosophical scrutiny (Dworkin 2010) and are not as clear cut as they might prima facie seem: would hiding the sleeping pills of your suicidal partner limit the liberty or autonomy of your partner (1)? Or what about consent (2) if the “beneficiary” of the paternalist intervention is not even aware of the intervention? Or what about policies that have other goals in addition to the welfare of the targeted individuals (3)?

  4. Note that examples of policies that are purely paternalistic are difficult to come by (Dworkin 1972, p. 65). Even in the above-mentioned examples, besides “protecting” the individual from itself, an additional motivation might lie in reducing externalities, e.g. when helmet or seatbelt laws reduce the cost of injuries to the social health care system. Nevertheless, paternalistic policies’ central aim is to improve the welfare of the recipients, whereas, for example, utilitarian policies are justified by reference to the welfare of society, where individuals can actually be made worse off through that policy because the gain in welfare of some others outweighs their loss. Such a policy is not paternalistic as per the definition used here and in the literature.

  5. Note that one could also conceive of paternalism involving a trade-off in present liberty for future liberty, when one’s liberties today are curtailed in order to have larger liberties in the future as a result (a case in point would be a definition of welfare that includes liberties). This sort of trade-off might actually be easier to defend by the paternalist (see Dworkin 1972).

  6. Paternalists and anti-paternalists usually also tend to agree that paternalism is warranted in the case of minors or people that are mentally not competent to judge for themselves. In these cases, it is easy to justify paternalism from an epistemic point of view with the cognitive limitations of the individuals involved and from a moral point of view by helping them because they are ends in themselves.

  7. “That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.” (Mill 1991[1969], p. 30).

  8. Note that a defence of anti-paternalism along utilitarian lines seemed weak even before the advent of behavioural economics (see more extensively Dworkin 1972, pp. 74–76): Mill’s position on paternalism is much more complex than the one argument presented here and he gives further arguments against paternalism but also conditions where it is permissible in his “On Liberty” (Mill (1991[1969]); on Mill’s view on paternalism, see also more extensively (Dworkin 1972; Arneson 1989)).

  9. By referring to “idiots”, Camerer et al. (2003) quote an early legal case where the justification for paternalism was spelled out with respect to those who cannot make competent decisions for themselves, namely “idiots, minors or married women” (Rogers v. Higgins 1868, quoted from Camerer et al. 2003, p. 1213 fn 5).

  10. Libertarian paternalism is sometimes also called “soft” or “light paternalism” (see Loewenstein and Haisley 2008), for a survey). It is very similar to “asymmetric paternalism” (Camerer et al. 2003), which is not defined in terms of limiting choice options but through asymmetrically benefitting individuals making decision errors while imposing small costs on individuals who act completely rational. For the purpose of the present paper I’ll focus on libertarian paternalism while noting that the two are rather similar in many cases and most of the discussion will also apply to asymmetric paternalism.

  11. These instruments can be combined with other procedural or even substantive constraints, thus posing more severe restrictions of liberties. For example, opt-out can be limited to specified waiting periods or other substantive constraints, e.g. conditions under which opt-out will be possible or not (Thaler and Sunstein 2003, pp. 1188–1190).

  12. People might want to be nudged in some cases. However, according to our definition of paternalism, nudging people who consent to this is no longer paternalism (Sugden 2011, p. 32). Moreover, people enjoy making decisions and in many cases, one could as easily argue that they want to be offered the possibility to choose and resent being manipulated (see Rebonato 2012).

  13. In my understanding evolutionary economics thus extends behavioural economics with a dynamic (evolutionary) perspective and a focus on the motivational underpinnings of human decision-making (Witt 2012). This is not to say that there are no dynamic models in behavioural economics or no models that deal with the malleability or change of preferences. It rather suggests that evolutionary economic concerns can enrich behavioural economics where not taken into account and vice versa.

  14. This definition of “autonomy” in terms of leaving the nominal choice set intact is problematic and leaves out critical aspects usually associated with the notion (Dworkin 1988, pp. 7–9 and p. 48). As argued below, decreasing options might actually increase autonomy if the decrease encourages critical thinking about the remaining options. Such a definition of “autonomy” in terms of critically reflecting upon and then attempting to accept or change one’s desires (ibid., p. 48) seems preferable and less counter-intuitive in cases where many options lead to “choice overload” (Iyengar et al. 2003).

  15. An interesting recent twist on this argument has been given by Duflo (2012) who argues that libertarian paternalism might be justified in the context of poverty alleviation in the sense that nudging people with respect to basic goods such as health and nurture are the prerequisites for these individuals to be able to enjoy other more valuable positive freedoms.

  16. One has to add that Schubert and Cordes (2013) seem to suggest that they would also see these dynamics as legitimizing hard paternalism (p. 150).

  17. A different example would be entrepreneurship: excessive risk-taking or overconfidence might actually be a good thing for society in terms of innovativeness. While overconfidence of entrepreneurs might be detrimental for the individual entrepreneur who fails with a business, overall it does benefit society because, once in a while, a successful entrepreneur markets an innovation (Rizzo and Whitman 2009b, p. 704).

  18. On the debate about effectiveness and adaptiveness of biases and heuristics see also more extensively Rebonato 2012, pp. 47–48). It is far from settled that deviations from normative rational choice standards are suboptimal: Berg and Lien (2005), for example, show that financial markets where individuals hold wrong beliefs can achieve Pareto improvements over rational expectations equilibrium (see also relatedly Berg 2003; Berg and Hoffrage 2008; Berg et al. 2011a)

  19. Camerer et al. (2003), p. 1254, discuss this general question shortly when it comes to an irrational demand for extended warranties that are extremely expensive compared to their actual expected value. In this calculation, the “peace of mind“ extended warranties provide for is typically ignored. What if people actually are willing to pay a lot of money for not having to fear a breakdown of their appliances? Similarly, state lotteries pay much less than a dollar on the dollar “invested” and yet it has not to be irrational if people spend the money to purchase some thrill or a shred of hope of becoming rich (see Gruene-Yanoff 2012, p. 643).

  20. (See more extensively Rebonato (2012), on the problems of a multiple selves view in this context and to what extent the metaphor of an “internality” that the warring selves create is actually problematic.

  21. If policy-makers are boundedly rational, the problem also gets worse: hyperbolic discounting then leads to “policy temptations“ of shortsighted policy-makers (Rizzo and Whitman 2009b, p. 724). Learning of policy-makers can also be “pathological” (Freytag and Renaud 2007).

  22. In the least, libertarian paternalism needs to be developed into a more dynamically minded theory that takes into account these features of human learning. For example, if one wanted to propagate such intervention, a distinction should be made whether decision-making errors can be overcome through experiential learning or not. If individuals can learn from their mistakes, the libertarian paternalist should aim at providing information in helping people to overcome the mistake. If a decision bias cannot be overcome even in repeated situations and through learning (or if a decision is indeed a one-shot problem without the possibility to learn from the experience), then the setting of a default might have more legitimacy. These kinds of considerations are, as of yet, largely absent in the libertarian paternalist debate.

  23. This is not to say that we should ignore human fallibility in decision-making, but instead of exploiting it in government decision-making, we should aim at increasing our faculty for critical thinking and deliberation. The libertarian paternalist should not exploit decision-making deficiencies but help in overcoming them (Rebonato 2012, pp. 218–220). In its core, the last argument is thus a moral one about autonomy (understood as critical reflection) that is undercut by the manipulative character of some libertarian paternalist interventions.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the ESRC-TSB-BIS-NESTA as part of the ES/J008427/1 grant on Skills, Knowledge, Innovation, Policy and Practice (SKIPPY). I wish to thank the participants of seminars at the University of Jena and the University of Sussex for helpful comments and suggestions. I am most grateful for the very insightful and extensive comments from both Nathan Berg and an anonymous referee. I have also benefitted from discussions with the participants of two workshops on the normative correlates of behavioural and evolutionary economics in Freiburg in 2009 and 2011. Finally, I want to thank Ulrich Witt and Leonhard K. Lades for comments and the latter also for stimulating discussions about nudging and self-nudging. Errors and biases, sadly, remain mine alone.

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Binder, M. Should evolutionary economists embrace libertarian paternalism?. J Evol Econ 24, 515–539 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00191-013-0323-7

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Keywords

  • Evolutionary economics
  • Libertarian paternalism
  • Behavioural economics
  • Naturalistic methodology

JEL Classifications

  • B52
  • D63