I thought readers of the blog might be interested in my recent contribution to a symposium on the Political Theology blog about “nudging.” I don’t say too much that will be new, but you might find my contribution interesting as a generic summary of how a reasonable libertarian might approach the idea. The symposium is a series of replies to “Human Freedom and the Art of Nudging,” written by Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, religious studies professors at the University of Virginia. I think their piece is, quite honestly, bad. It attacks libertarian criticisms of nudging based on a host of straw men. But as I said, I thought you might find my contribution interesting nonetheless. Here’s my reproduction of it.
In a recent article defending a “nudge” approach to public policy, where behavioral economics is employed to provide mild modifications of individual preferences and behaviors in ways that serve said individuals’ good, Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie take Richard Williams to task for his “libertarian” criticisms of the nudge approach. I’m rather sure that the libertarianism they attribute to Williams is neither necessary for his argument or a remotely accurate portrayal of libertarianism as a political philosophy. But rather than make these rather obvious points (which Hunter Baker’s response touches on), I thought it might be more constructive to outline a genuinely libertarian attitude towards the whole nudge paradigm.
Following John Tomasi and Matt Zwolinski, I take libertarianism to be a family of political theories and principles with common characteristics, or perhaps common emphases on at least six key ideas. Libertarians emphasize the importance of private property rights, both morally and economically. It is critical for practically all libertarians that individuals, families and voluntary associations have the right to acquire, accumulate and transfer private property freely. Libertarians share a broad-based skepticism of human authority. They tend to hold the powerful to a high degree of critical scrutiny and in many cases deny that ordinary people have any duty to obey them. More moderate libertarians may not deny political officials authority entirely, but will instead encourage that we realize that such figures are at best necessary evils. Libertarians stress the many virtues of free markets. That is, they encourage the widespread reliance on the market mechanism, understood in terms of the use of free-floating prices and the system of profit and loss, to allocate goods and services. Markets are both more efficient than government regulations or government control, but more suitably to peaceable living and respectful of liberty and basic human rights. Libertarians stress the importance of spontaneous order, or the idea that most of the order found in human social life, the good order, is the result not of conscious human design, though still the product of human action. The best, most functional social orders are typically not those we design from the top-down, but the ones we allow to grow within a broad social and legal framework. Libertarians are also individualists. This is at least an ontological claim: all that exist are individuals and voluntarily created groups. There is no such thing as “society” as an abstract entity. Libertarians are individualists in that they hold that individuals are the primary bearers of rights. And they are political individualists, holding that political institutions are duty bound not to trod on individual rights. Finally, libertarians are typically cosmopolitan in that they place relatively less importance on social membership not voluntarily taken on. Nationality is typically not a good justification for immigration restrictions. Race is typically not a good justification for coercive affirmative action policies, etc.
So a fair and un-biased picture of libertarianism is this. A libertarian is one who affirms the importance of private property rights, is skeptical of human political authority, advocates the widespread use of free-markets, has a strong belief in the salutary effects of spontaneous order, and holds to a kind of individualist cosmopolitanism. Not all libertarians have all of these features. As a Christian libertarian, for instance, I reject the moral individualism of many libertarians, and I believe in collective bodies, like the Church. But I think we are right to be skeptical of human political authorities when we find them, even if they in some sense have God-given authority. And I am a strident cosmopolitan (think the Good Samaritan) and a believer that God’s will is best expressed through spontaneous order processes rather than the cruder and more corruptible top-down hand of government.
But my differences aside, how is a libertarian to think about nudging? She will be skeptical. First, she is likely to see nudging as a violation of the right of private property because it involves regulating the use of private property in business. She doesn’t care much for political authority in the first place, both because it is ineffective and unjustified. Further, she recognizes that the nudgers are themselves flawed individuals, the same sorts of folks that may need nudging. Who is to say that in the end they’ll be better decision-makers? Indeed, if behavioral economics shows that humans are irrational, surely these effects will taint the nudgers too. And in any case, where do the nudgers get that sort of authority over individuals, authority sufficient to deliberately alter their preferences? Democracy can’t be the answer: democratic rights aren’t so strong that they can pre-empt an individual’s right to direct her own life in her own way. Can we really by vote give someone the moral authority to alter our preferences? The libertarian will also worry that nudging will breach the free-market, making it less effective, and prove to be one more failure to recognize the salutary effects of spontaneous order. Nudging seems to flout the libertarian’s commitment to individualism as well, as it involves giving government too much power over individual choice. (Cosmopolitanism doesn’t seem to enter the picture.)
So these are the concerns that a reasonable libertarian will raise. I share nearly all of them. Now let’s turn to Mathewes and McRorie’s critique of Williams. For the sake of argument, let’s just replace Williams with the reasonable libertarian as I’ve described him. Surely the interesting point is not whether Mathewes and McRorie have answered Williams but whether they provide an adequate response to generic libertarian concerns. The sad thing is that they have not done so, not by a long shot. Let me proceed bit by bit.
Mathewes and McRorie claim that Williams is committed to the view that human preferences and choices are formulated in a vacuum, independent of all external factors. This, they say, is an illusion: “our agency is always being shaped by external factors.” They then launch into attacks on “homo economicus” and how poorly it models human beings and standby conservative and progressive claims that no one is truly “self-made.” But any reasonable libertarian can hold that people are not truly self-made. She can also deny that we’re merely motivated by economic factors or that our choices are formulated in a vacuum. I don’t know of any libertarian who made that claim and many who sharply denied it, among them Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek.
The reasonable libertarian, I expect, will simply reply that we can hold both that our preferences are deeply dependent on the external environment and that it is prima facie objectionable to give government the power to manipulate them. That’s what I think, anyway, and I like to think that I’m a reasonable libertarian.
Mathewes and McRorie then argue that because there is no such thing as environments that don’t shape who we are that we might as well have the government do the shaping. Our choices are determined by our “choice architecture” which is something humans decide on, deliberately or not. We can take the design of our institutions into our own hands via government and so do better what we’re already committed to doing anyway.
Just because something is not under my control, however, doesn’t mean I can’t have an objection to government engaging in such control. I didn’t control my upbringing, my parents did, but I can still object to government being my parent. I didn’t control my eating habits as a child, my parents did, but I can still object to government controlling my food choices. The fact that my choices are externally determined simply doesn’t imply that government should take on that external determination. Any reasonable libertarian will see that. Their concerns about political authority and awareness of the power of spontaneous order will make that clear.
The reasonable libertarian’s insights will also help her to see through the false dilemma the authors then present us: “the issue is whether we will choose to consciously and deliberately shape those forces, or rather let them be determined by purely economic factors, as is the current status quo.” The choice is “between having the nudger be responsive to political leaders whom you put in power and the nudger be, say, some advertising executive over whose decisions you never have any say.”
Any libertarian will recognize this as a false dilemma because they recognize the importance of the norms set by civil society, sets of voluntary institutions that are neither profit-seeking like firms nor coercive like governments. We can appeal to all sorts of non-legal conventions and norms to control the excesses of market morality. It is rather remarkable that two scholars of religious studies couldn’t conceive of this option.
Second, given the libertarian’s understandable worries about excessive political power and the glorification of the state, she will simply point out that the fact that I have one vote out of hundreds of millions to choose among a small handful of candidates every two years is a far cry from being ruled by political leaders that I put in power. At least the business executive has the threat of losing profits, one that can be immediately felt. The reasonable libertarian will argue that Mathewes and McRorie don’t really understand how markets or governments work. They fail to see the ways in which markets are input-responsive social systems and governments frequently are not.
I’m sad to say that the authors’ claims degenerate from here into insults levels against the libertarian political tradition. Mathewes and McRorie state that if the libertarian picture of the world were true, “libertarianism would be attractive across societies as their natural default position. Yet it has rarely emerged except when it has been the beneficiary of enormous financial subvention by wealthy proponents.” This is hard to take seriously. Progressive democratic ideas haven’t been attractive across societies as their default option either. In fact, from what I can tell, just about nothing other than hereditary monarchy has been attractive across societies if we’re sufficiently inclusive.
Further, the idea that libertarianism has been brought about by the secret machinations of robber barons is little more than conspiracy theorizing. What examples of libertarian societies are they even talking about? And who are these secret monsters?
As a libertarian, I recognize one challenge to my view is that there haven’t been any libertarian societies. I have to base my advocacy on moral principles and case-by-case empirical arguments for markets. The comparison class the authors have in mind seems to me fantastic.
The authors end by saying this,
If reflecting on this state of affairs brings up uncomfortable questions about whether there is such a thing as unconditioned consumer agency at all, and about how markets work in the first place (are “slotting fees” a good idea? do they make cereal markets less “free”?), so much the better.
I disagree here as well. Mathewes and McRorie have compounded standard argumentative fallacies with strawman insults against libertarianism. Libertarian thought deserves a more respectful engagement. The reasonable libertarian I describe deserves to be treated better. Perhaps the authors could spend less time defending irresponsible power and more time studying a respectable tradition of social and political thought.
My essay Hugo Grotius on War and the State has been posted on Liberty Matters, the online scholarly site of the Liberty Fund. I claim, among other things, that while Grotius’ jurisprudential method was confused, his recommendations on the laws of war were ahead of their time. As a political theorist he does not measure up to the giants of the Enlightenment, but has the merit of having been the first on a number of points.
Comments from Hans Blom and Eric Mack will follow, with my reply.
My book, Toleration, is now available so I thought I would write up a few posts related to it. This first post will also be up on Polity’s blog. For some comments about the book, see Polity’s website. You can also order the book from Wiley; if you do, you can use discount code PY532 for 20% off.
So, Toleration and Judging:
In the contemporary west (and perhaps elsewhere), many of us like to think we are open to meeting and having friendships with all sorts of people that are different from us. We might have our own religious or moral beliefs, but we think of ourselves as beyond having to impose them on others. So we meet others with views that can’t be true if ours are and we think “they are entitled to their views.” With that firmly established in our minds, we think we can have an honest and respectful relationship with the other. We think we can and should tolerate everyone else. Live and let live. So far so good.
Too often, however, the “live and let live” attitude is thought the opposite of a proselytizing dogmatism. Proselytizing dogmatists, as I understand them, are uncomfortable with their own beliefs not being accepted by others and seek to convince everyone they meet of those beliefs. These people are seemingly so convinced of their own beliefs that they can’t tolerate others not accepting them as true.
We seem to have two possibilities: (1) those thoroughly committed to the truth of their own views and, so, unwilling to accept that others can’t come to see the truth of these views and (2) those who live and let live, presumably not very committed to their own beliefs. The non-proselytizer, it seems, isn’t willing to say others are wrong. Indeed, we often hear it said that we can’t (or shouldn’t) judge others or their beliefs and so must tolerate them. Toleration, on that view, is based in our inability to judge others, perhaps because of a recognition of our own fallibility. But, of course, if we are fallible with regard to our other beliefs, we are fallible with regard to our belief that toleration is a value!
We are, indeed, fallible. I don’t think anything follows from this with regard to toleration (see Chapter 7, section E). It is perfectly reasonable to think toleration is a value while recognizing one’s own fallibility. One may be wrong, but to say one thinks X is to say, “given all else I know, I think X and I will maintain X until shown that X is false.” As Joseph Schumpeter said “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Indeed, it seems entirely natural to be willing to stand for one’s beliefs unflinchingly, recognizing one’s judgments may nonetheless be wrong. Importantly, moreover, that willingness to judge is necessary for toleration (and, I think, part of a good life—consider someone unwilling to judge a chain-saw wielding hockey-masked stranger). This is an important and sometimes overlooked fact. To tolerate something is, in part, to refrain from interfering with it, but not every instance of noninterference is an instance of toleration. I can watch my son play with his wooden trains for hours without interfering. No one would say I tolerate his play. If I said “yes, I tolerate his play,” I imagine people would wonder about my parenting. This is because saying I tolerate the train play implies that I dislike or disapprove of it—that is, saying that in some way, I oppose it. But I don’t oppose it. I love it. (This is also why multiculturalism, as advocacy of multiple cultures, is not a form of toleration; it is a form of endorsement rather than indication of opposition.)
Saying I tolerate X means, in part, that I have made a judgment that X is something in need of toleration, something not thought worthwhile or good, morally or otherwise. If I make no judgment against X, I cannot (conceptually) tolerate X. This suggests that the two possible positions noted in my third paragraph above are not exhaustive of the possibilities. This is a good thing for BHLs and libertarians generally because neither of those positions seems quite suited to us. A third sort of person is indeed missing: (3) those thoroughly committed to their own views, willing to judge that others’ or others’ beliefs are worth opposing and yet insistent that—at least in some of those cases—the others must be tolerated.
“Advocating toleration does not mean advocating some wishy-washy namby-pamby way of being that requires you to refrain from judging others” (page 2). To be an advocate of toleration is to think toleration is objectively valuable—that is, to think it something all should value, not something one merely endorses as good for oneself but perhaps not good for others. Tolerating others requires opposing them in some way–judging that that there is something to oppose. The big question, for me, is “why should we tolerate what we oppose?” In the book, I lay out different principles that indicate when we should tolerate and when the limits of toleration have been transgressed. I endorse one of these and indicate why I reject the others—though I suspect others will think at least one of those others must be endorsed as well. I will tolerate that.
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