Friday, April 04, 2008

The Nudging Illusion

Tibor R. Machan

No sooner does one line of defense of statism fall into disrepute, another is invented by people who insist that they and others with special virtues and qualities have the moral and should have the legal authority to meddle with other people’s lives. Socialism and fascism have pretty much been discredited, so outright top down management of people’s lives, whether economic or spiritual, is now out of fashion. Except for some dyed in the wool enthusiast for running people’s lives by means of coercive force, most meddlers are now urging the deployment of less Draconian measures by which to carry out their interventions. (Such folks like to point to China's communist rulers who are far from Stalinist thugs.)

Richard H. Thaler, who is a Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, and Cass R. Sunstein, a Professor of Law--both of them at the University of Chicago--are two indefatigable academic champions of meddling. But they know that this is not a goal that too many people find attractive as public policy. (Of course there are innumerable measures of intervention in play in this and most other societies but the intellectual support for them is not coming off as very credible these days.) So instead of promoting even the less harsh versions of the command system--e. g., market socialism--these authors are pushing libertarian paternalism or what they call nudging in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2008). The idea is pretty elementary: don’t try to make people act better by threats of--or actual--physical force; nudge them by subtle mandatory adjustments in their environment. An example they use to illustrate the method involves placing an image of a fly in an airport urinal which tends to incline men to aim at it and thus prevents spillage by 80 per cent. How clever and gentle! So why not have governments follow this approach as they try to make men and women behave better?

One simple answer is that it is insidious to have governments manipulate the citizenry with various tricks. Airport urinal designers operate without a captive clientele. One need not go there but could have gone at a gas station or back home before getting on the road. And, in any case, the urinals belong to the airport, so they have the authority to design it any way they want to.

But more importantly, there is that famous saying from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, that one swallow does not a springtime make! Just because there is one example of useful manipulation of people--and we use such nudging techniques all the time in our personal lives, of course, in our voluntary associations with people--it doesn’t follow that they are all clever and wise.

It is sad that Thaler and Sunstein do not fully appreciate the work of public choice theorists who have taught some very useful lessons about entrusting government bureaucrats with the task of guiding the rest of us in how we should live our lives. While now and then these bureaucrats--lead by legislatures and consultants--may hit upon a fruitful, sensible measure that we all ought to adopt in our lives, there is absolutely no reason to think that they will do this routinely. Public choice theorists note, very helpfully, that people in power have their own agendas and while now and then they may act as bona fide public servants--though not even then as necessarily skillful ones--in time most of them become simple promoters of their own goals. And they will always be subject to the very same foibles that the rest of us are subject to and which Thaler and Sunstein believe justifies their intruding upon us in typical Nanny-like fashion. In short, who will nudge those doing the nudging to nudge the right way?

This fantasy that there are among us some few folks who just know so much better how we ought to live--how we ought to care for our wealth, health and happiness--is a grave threat to us all. Thaler and Sunstein complain that we need the nudging because “there are limits on the number of items to which we can pay attention at one time.” Yet that very same thing is true about all those who would do the nudging, so their propensity to mess things up is just as great as ours. Moreover, because they are powerful, able to impose their will on others, the probability of their going astray is greater than that of us doing so--in the spirit of Lord Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt, absolutely power corrupts absolutely.”

Nudging has its uses but not as public policy, not by a long shot.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Welfare Corrupts

Tibor R. Machan

Before anything else it needs to be noted that most of the welfare recipients are not unwed mothers but people doing business as major corporations. They receive subsidies, bailouts, protection from competition and so forth, all undeserved, all unjust, all lacking any legitimacy in a genuine free country. American firms, as thousands of others around the globe, have managed to persuade politicians to provide them with benefits at the expense of people who haven’t consented to any of the takings that provide the funds that make all this possible.

A very early essay I wrote on the topic--published in the philosophy journal The Personalist--was called “Justice and the Welfare State.” In it I argued, way back in 1970, that the welfare state breaks the connection between cause and effect and thus promotes widespread injustice. People who earn a living don’t get to keep their earnings as people who don’t earn a living get away with having those in government looting resources for them.

Of course, there can be some of this without any injustice, when people voluntarily contribute portions of their wealth so others can be helped out, usually temporarily. Such voluntary generosity, charity, philanthropy, and so forth is quite proper among human beings. What isn’t is the daisy chain of rip offs that constitutes the welfare state where politicians and bureaucrats extort funds from innocent citizens so as to support unsuccessful business enterprises and people who create huge families they are unable to support on their own.

Another result of the welfare state is the corruption of personal responsibility. Millions of people are being taught by the system that they can get away with not being responsible, without having to practice the moral virtue of prudence. All the safety nets placed under them become routine in welfare states whereas they should only be provided on a temporary basis, by willing contributors, so that the message does not spread that millions of citizens may live off the backs of others.

Let’s not even worry for now about the ripping off that’s involved. That is unjust and cruel, of course. But another equally insidious aspect of the welfare system is that from the time they are infants millions of people are told, in effect, that they don’t need to work, to produce goods and services for the market place, in order to support themselves. All they need is to back some politicians who will help them loot productive people. This will create the clear impression that life can be lived without having to do much to sustain it other than join a political pressure group.

Of course, the welfare state does not involve generosity, compassion or charity--all those require free choice. The welfare state involves organized crime, extortion, transferring wealth from unwilling citizens to those with political clout. How can such a system not fail to communicate corrupt principles of human community life to those who gain from it? Do you need to have foresight in running your business? No, since when you fail you will not experience the natural consequences of failure. Do you need to do vigorous and smart marketing of your goods and services? No, since if you don’t sell these you will not experience adverse results--instead the government will make sure you can carry on in your inept ways. Do you need to plan your family, adjust your aspirations to your means? Not at all--you’ll get a free ride from the government’s extortion of innocent people.

Again, when people experience temporary setbacks they are usually helped out by family, friends, neighbors, and various service organizations, but not with blank checks that misinform them about the requirements of life.

And then there is the question of why so many people are wringing their hands about people going into debt way over their capacity to carry the debt? Why are so many caught unawares about their fellows taking on mortgages they are unable to pay? Why do millions of young people keep maxing out their credit cards? Why do businesses start up without adequate capitalization? Why do they hold on to outmoded practices that lead them to fail?

Maybe an important element of what leads to all this and more is how the welfare state educates everyone to believe that one can get along quite well without having to think about the future. One can get by in it without learning how the world works when it is not distorted by the system.

So aside from the injustice of the welfare state there is also the fact that it leads to massive corruption throughout a society, severe misconceptions about what it really takes to make a reasonably prosperous life for oneself, both in personal and business affairs.
Funding Rand Courses

Tibor R. Machan

Throughout the American Southeast, where BB&T bank conducts most of its business, the company’s foundation has been doling out some big bucks to support the study of the work of Russian born American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. The grants are made to various colleges and universities--among them Duke and Marshall--to set up various centers or professorships and sometimes the condition for receiving the funds includes putting Rand’s blockbuster and huge novel, Atlas Shrugged, on a course reading list.

In most cases the funds are welcome, especially--and not surprisingly--by college or university administrators. In a few instances, however, there has been some protest from folks who claim they are worried about academic freedom. Both proponents and opponents have invoked the idea of academic freedom. And with some justification. If you give money to an educational institution, often it is the institution itself that determines how it should be used. But by no means always. People contribute huge sums to have libraries or interfaith centers built with their names attached. Donors often establish endowed chairs--I myself hold one at Chapman University--with the aim of giving the teaching of certain subjects a boost. Although there is no directive to use the money contributed in any specific way, it is most often well understood that a donor’s agenda will carry influence.

For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently received a $10 million contribution from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation so as to establish a new national program on "the law and neuroscience." The website that describes this states that “The effort will seek to integrate new developments in neuroscience into the U.S. legal system. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is the honorary chair of the Law and Neuroscience Project, which will be directed by Michael S. Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind.”

Now there is a definite agenda involved here, laid out in, for example, a recent Op Ed column in The New York Times. The idea is to influence the reform of the criminal law system so it takes into consideration findings of neuroscience that challenge certain of the assumptions of our legal system. Among these assumptions is the view that defendants facing criminal charges have free will, can decide what they will do for themselves, etc. The program will promote the idea that in fact people’s minds are determined to function in certain ways and no one is really free and, therefore, guilty.

There are innumerable programs with various agendas throughout the academy. Various schools of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities receive support from wealthy donors who have been convinced of the merits of one or another way of understanding some subject matter being discussed in the halls of the academy.

And this is just what the BB&T grant is trying to do: influence the culture through the scholarship of those at colleges and universities doing work in some field along lines the donors regard important. Because colleges and universities have many different departments addressing innumerable issues, and these departments would (properly) have highly diverse faculties, with a great variety of perspectives, there is supposed to be no danger of turning the faculty into some kind of one-sided, biased advocacy group. One can be sure, for example, that wherever Ayn Rand’s works will be studied, there will be many other novelists who are also examined in depth, depending on the professional judgment of teachers and scholars.

The hoopla surrounding the BB&T effort to support the serious study of Rand is mostly a turf fight, not unusual in higher education. People who go into teaching usually have strong convictions in their discipline, many with public policy implications. Just consider the controversies surrounding intelligent design or creationism. Publicly run and funded educational institutions will naturally be subjected to these controversies--many desire and believe have the right to have an input so as to influence the culture to promote what they deem to be worthy ideas.

Of course, in our time most of the disciplines that involve moral and political components tend to be taught by people with convictions that lean leftward. This is no secret. And when other viewpoints gain a bit of inroad, there are efforts to resist it. Again, not very surprisingly. And this resistance is usually expressed in terms that make it sound very noble--“We are defending academic freedom”--instead of what it really is, namely, an effort to keep or gain dominance.

No university or college is forced to accept grants from anyone but most of them do toe the line favored by the government that funds them. It is certainly a welcome development that the private sector’s values are gaining some support here and there.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Liberty: Both Radical & Traditional

Tibor R. Machan

At times libertarian or classical liberal--or, in yet other words, pure laissez faire capitalist--ideas are dismissed as part of a misguided modernity that’s lacking proper pedigree. But this is all wrong. Already back in circa 600 B.C.E. the Chinese sage Lao Tzu had weighed in with libertarian ideas, writing

"Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious...."

And in ancient Greece, Xenophon records an exchange between Pericles and Alcibiades in which the latter dismisses all government edicts that are coercive as plainly unlawful. As he put it, “It would seem to follow that if a tyrant, without persuading the citizens, drives them by enactment to do certain things--that is lawlessness.”

Of course, merely because a good idea has seen the light of day at some point in time, it doesn’t mean it actually carried the day. Ideas of individual liberty did not begin to animate actual political affairs until rather late in the day, starting around the 11th century A. D. A good example of some such ideas beginning to make an impact is the Magna Carta. And then, in time, came the American Founders, with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They managed, finally, to use the libertarian position, which they absorbed through their reading of history and philosophers such as John Locke, for practical, legal purposes. Why so late with the emergence of practical legal measures that support individual liberty?

One reason is that in much of human history what carried the day was unmitigated, unabashed physical coercion, the powerful and well armed running roughshod over the rest. Conquering thugs, armed to the teeth by monarchs and tribal chiefs, would not let up on their brutal subjugation of the population so they could extort from them their labor and whatever meager resources they have accumulated. There had been slave and peasant revolts but not until a substantial middle class emerged, with the capacity to create wealth, did those not in the ruling class manage to be able to mount a resistance to the rulers. And while some knew about the ideas that supported individualism and libertarianism, many were hoodwinked by stories of the divine rights of monarchs and the widely promulgated myth of class privilege.

In the modern era what stood in the way of the liberation of individuals, the overturning of class rule, is the idea that individualism had been invented to serve the economically lucky and powerful. This was a ruse, of course, perpetrated by the cheerleaders of modern rulers, the likes of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, who had no patience for individual rights and liberation but believed in a collectivism that included the entire globe! They appealed to the myth of tribalism which they managed to sell to millions of people who, in turn, signed up for a unity of the workers but, of course, under the leadership--read: brutal rule--of the likes of Lenin and Stalin. Or they gave up their chance for freedom to national socialists or fascists like Hitler and Mussolini.

Even today the ideas and ideals of individual liberty fare badly because of the many excuses people use to keep others oppressed. The idea of class warfare that even American politicians deploy, for example, undercuts individualism. Ethnicity, racism, gender politics, and the like are all obstacles to making headway for bona fide individualism, with its politics of everyone’s equal unalienable natural rights as the foundation of the legal system, even as their proponents sometimes invoke individualist ideas to excuse the special political privileges they seek.

The Marxists dismissed individualism as an ideology that supposedly served the capitalist, thereby aiming to destroy the most efficient social engine of productivity, the one that unleashed the enormous energy of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. We are, sadly, still in the grips of the big lie that individualism is some kind of insidious ideology.

What’s the remedy? Relentless, vigilant education in the history and philosophy of individualism and libertarianism. That’s the greatest hope for human liberation.