No commentator prostrates himself before the altar of social science as often as David Brooks. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to learn he agrees with Cass Sunstein that government ought to “nudge” people to help them make better choices. This philosophy, called libertarian paternalism, is the subject of Brooks’s column today:
Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise. Government could crack down on companies that exploit common cognitive errors to induce you to pay more for your mortgage, bank account, credit card or car warranty. Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.
This makes the very naive assumption that government agents naturally act in the public interest, something I thought James Buchanan refuted long ago. What’s more likely is that the regulators would start with a little red light in the air conditioners. Then they’d slap on another regulation, then another, then another, hiring more and more regulators as they went, bloating their bureaucracy, and completely losing sight of their original public-spirited goal.
And even if we could somehow find a squad of regulators who hadn’t bitten the apple—who behaved with absolute selflessness at all times—how could we possibly trust them to make optimal decisions for a nation of 300 million people? As Jean Yarbrough asks, “If we ordinary humans suffer from cognitive biases that undermine our judgment, don’t these supposed experts as well? Why, then, should we trust them to do any better?” The record of regulators isn’t exactly stellar when it comes to achieving their intended goals, and unintended consequences pop up all the time.
Brooks then summarizes the debate between paternalists and anti-paternalists, and botches the latter’s argument:
Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.
Brooks ultimately rejects the idea that soft paternalism will lead to hard paternalism. He’s right to an extent. Soda cup bans don’t naturally yield martial law…but then again, nobody is seriously arguing that they do. The more salient contention is that government has no right to tell a company how to run its business or treat its citizens as lab rats that need to be guided around a maze, whether it’s nudging or shoving. We’re not children and we shouldn’t be regarded as such. Further, a government that nudges people towards good outcomes prevents them from learning how to achieve those outcomes on their own. People need to learn to overcome temptation and laziness, not lean on government as a crutch.
Brooks concludes with this:
These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.
I’d certainly agree with the first sentence, as would most conservatives. But the notion that government can sew the fabric back together is nonsense. The American tradition is one of virtue rising up from the bottom, not being imposed from on top. We’ve behaved well because of strong families, churches, schools, and local communities, not distant bureaucracies hundreds of miles away packed with geeky technocrats waving around the latest social science paper. The federal government can enforce order and defend us, but there’s no evidence it can meddle at the micro level to make us better.
It is easy to foresee that the time is drawing near when man will be less and less able to produce, by himself alone, the commonest necessaries of life. The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other. Will the administration of the country ultimately assume the management of all the manufactures which no single citizen is able to carry on? And if a time at length arrives when, in consequence of the extreme subdivision of landed property, the soil is split into an infinite number of parcels, so that it can be cultivated only by companies of tillers will it be necessary that the head of the government should leave the helm of state to follow the plow? The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies. Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.