Paternalism is contempt, Eric Crampton edition

Let’s take a few more whacks at this dead horse.  In this case, Eric Crampton goes through a paper by Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier:

Essentially, he argues that paternalism — everything from Prohibition to sin taxes to the “nudges” beloved of behavioural economics — are intended to prevent (or discourage) the plebians from doing things that disgust or annoy the patricians who generate and pass the laws.  In the spirit of factis non verbis, he extracts from the regulations passed by nudgers this attitude towards their targets:

We need to fix them. Tax and regulate them until they stop being noticeably annoying. We’ll say it’s for their own good, but we’ll really stick to the kinds of things that annoy us. So things like making sure everyone in low decile schools takes a course in basic personal finance so they understand how hire-purchase works and avoid making mistakes with loans, we’ll not worry about that. But we’ll tax fatty foods because obese people are unpleasant to look at and we’ll tax the kinds of booze that the lower orders drink because there’s fewer more unpleasant things than a poor idiot who’s drunk.

(Just to be clear: Caplan, Beaulier, and Crampton — and incidentally your humble blogger — oppose this abusive mindset.)

He concludes with a stinging analysis of behavioural economics:

I just don’t go in for the behavioural lit: I’m not convinced that behavioural lab findings apply out in the real world where folks have recourse to all kinds of useful heuristics for making decent choices; I’m also exceedingly reluctant to call someone’s behaviour irrational when it could well be fully rational in pursuit of a goal that isn’t mine. I’m nervous enough about making interpersonal utility comparisons; interpersonal rationality comparisons seem even more of a problem.

It might be instructive for behavioural economists eager to validate their lab findings to look at the work of David Mech, who first established the alpha-beta-omega model of wolf pack behaviour by studying wolves in captivity, then established that it was wrong by studying wolves in the wild.  (I’m sure LabRat or Janeen will be along presently to correct me if I screwed that up.)

Don’t simply take my word for it; go RTWT.


2 Responses to “Paternalism is contempt, Eric Crampton edition”

  1. February 10, 2011 at 13:35

    Bryan and Scott are more sympathetic to the behavioural take on things; they’re far less inclined to reckon policy interventions to be worthwhile, but they’re happier to grant the initial premise.

    • February 10, 2011 at 14:17

      Right. I don’t think my post implies otherwise, but I didn’t take pains to make it clear that you’re the one who’s skeptical of behavioural econ. I’m hoping readers will click through and discover that point from your post, in any case. :-)

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