This morning I was interviewed by my friend Ross Kaminsky on his radio show in Colorado. The subject was behavioral economics. (Richard Thaler, a renowned and respected behavioral economist, is the 2017 Nobel laureate in Economics.) I find much of Thaler’s work – and behavioral economics more generally – to be interesting. I confess, however, that behavioral economics does not ‘grab’ me in the way that it grabs many other economists and social scientists.
I could here list the specific objections and reservations I have about behavioral economics, none having to do with the veracity of its particular findings. But I’ll not do so. I want here simply to note that the foundational motivation that seems to me to drive behavioral economists – and to drive those who are most enthusiastic about the findings of behavioral economics – is a motivation that is completely foreign to me. That motivation, as I sense it, is the desire to interfere in the lives of strangers in order to improve the lives of strangers.
I’m very much in favor of the lives of as many individuals as possible being improved as much as possible. But I do not share the itch that many people have to take the lead in directing such improvement. I want individuals to be left as free as possible so that each of them, in their own creative ways, can work to improve their own lives as they judge best.
My attitude is not borne of narrow-mindedness or self-centeredness. (I don’t think that I possess such traits to any greater or lesser degree than such traits are possessed by each of my fellow 7.4 billion human beings.) Instead, my attitude springs from a deep sense of personal inadequacy – inadequacy on my part to know with sufficient assurance what particular choices would be best for anyone but myself (with the possible exception of my son). I simply do not have – and have never had – any sense that I’m in a position to know what is ‘best’ for anyone else.
I’m aware that people are prone to error, sometimes very grave ones. I know that people make mistakes routinely. My attitude is emphatically not the product of a belief in others’ hyper-rationality. I make mistakes regularly in the conduct of my own life. My many errors impress upon me the fact that, were I to be charged with superintending someone else’s life, I’d err at least as frequently in that task as I err in running my own affairs. And so for reasons rooted partly in selfishness (I don’t want to be burdened with the guilt of screwing up someone else’s life) and partly in humility (I know that I’m in a worse position than is Smith to run Smith’s life), every fiber of my being reacts negatively to the thought of having any power, or even influence, over anyone else’s life’s choices.
In short, I just don’t understand the urge to direct, or even to ‘nudge,’ others about. I don’t doubt the good intentions of most of those who do have that urge (although I do indeed doubt their capacity to carry out their tasks as well as they seem to imagine they can carry out their tasks). I simply don’t have any such urge and, further, I cannot fathom having it. Those who have that urge are, therefore, very much foreign to me. They are foreign to me in the same way that, say, someone who revealed an urge to have sex with an oak tree, or an urge to eat concrete, would be foreign to me.