Happiness and Liberal Institutions: Why I'm Doing What I'm Doing

Another truly useful thing about Haybron’s paper is the totally stunning clarity with which he commits the Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization. The Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization is the fallacy of unfavorably contrasting a realistically (or pessimistically) described process or institution with an idealizistically desicribed process or institution. The fallacy was first made explicit to me by Steve Horwitz at an IHS conference. He drew a matrix on the board that looked something like this:

Market Instutions Government Institutions
Ideal X
Non-ideal X

The distribution of the Xs here shows how libertarians tend to commit the fallacy. Big government folk tend to go for a grim non-ideal market and a Panglossian government.

Almost the entirety of what I’ve been calling the “cognitive paternalism” literature amounts to an elaborate form of this version of the fallacy:

Human cognition Government policymaking
Non-ideal X

It would not be a fallacy if it was shown that institutions of government decisionmaking are in general more means-ends reliable than individual decisionmaking in the setting on non-government institutions. But no one ever does try to make that argument. I suspect that there is no good argument for it. The argument would need to be of this general form:

If genuine experts were in charge of the policymaking process, then they could write enforceable policy that would tend to improve the means-ends rationality of individual behavior.

The difficulties are legion. Let’s just concentrate on experts. The expert identification process is itself an institutional problem that is very hard to solve. There is no broad consensus among citizens as to who is an expert. Consider that Leon Kass was designated by the Bush adminstration as an expert in bioethics to make recommendations on government policy. We have Kass, among others, to thank for the president’s (I think deeply mistaken) opposition to cloning, stem-cell research, and, yes, human-animal hybrids! Is Kass a genuine expert of not? Was the Bush adminstration means-ends reliable when it appointed Donald Rumsfeld to run the DoD? It depends on who you ask. Maybe a majority of American’s say “yes.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but we clearly don’t even agree about the ends that we ought to be means-ends rational about. Philosophers and religious leaders and politicians are forever nominating themselves as experts about truly good ends. And, of course, as experts about who the experts about truly good ends are.

Well, you see the problem. We always have to keep in mind the possibility that if some domain of life is turned over to rule by experts, we may get the wrong experts. Imagine James Dobson as the czar of American family policy, empowered to structure incentives to lovingly guide us to behave according to his expert conception of healthy, fulfilling, truly good family life. The Rawlsian fact of pluralism is a real fact, and it doesn’t just disappear because you are a scientist, or because you are really right. James Dobson, and the millions whe love him, knows he’s really right, too. Ask Peter Singer. What does he think?

That said, here is Haybron:

Consider that a deep faith in the ability of individuals effectively to seek their own good has provided an important justification for liberal restrictions on the state’s role in promoting good lives. This strain of thought finds its classic expression in Mill’s On Liberty, where he writes that “the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place” (Mill 1991). Recall also the lines cited at the start of this paper. In essence, Mill argues that individuals tend to know how they are doing, and what’s good for them, far better than anyone else does, and so societies should let individuals make their own decisions about how to live. Give people as much freedom to live as they wish, with as much scope for shaping their lives as they see fit, as possible.

And yet, if individuals are prone systematically to botch choices regarding their happiness, or even if this must be considered a serious possibility, then this aspect of liberal thought loses a good deal of its support, specifically the traditional consequentialist arguments like Mill’s that favor it. We cannot simply assume a high level of prudential competence in the typical person. Nor can we assume, contra Mill, that governments won’t often know better than individuals what’s best for them, since some of our prudential shortcomings appear to be systematic. Thus policymakers armed with knowledge of human psychological weaknesses might be able to shape social arrangements to compensate for them, in ways that will not always sit well with liberal sensibilities. One might object here that, as Mill claimed, individuals still tend to know their own affects better than anyone else does. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that most people mistakenly think themselves happy. Even if they are the best judges of their specific feelings, it may be that well-informed officials have a better grip on how the population feels, in general, than the individuals taken in aggregate do. So, for instance, state officials might know that the average person isn’t happy, while the average person mistakenly believes herself happy.

Plainly, much more would need to be said actually to undermine consequentialist arguments for liberal strictures on state paternalism. Nor would the weakening or defeat of those arguments open the door for rampant government paternalism, since we could in any event have powerful reasons of autonomy for limiting state interventions in our lives. My purpose here is just to show how AI [affective ignorance] and related psychological matters could impact political thought: we may find, perhaps among other things, that we need to rethink common doubts about the efficacy of state paternalism in making people happier. [emphasis added]

The first emphasized passage is a truly remarkable example of the Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization. Here is my paraphrase: we can’t assume that individuals know what’s best for them, and so we can’t assume that other individuals, with the same psychological limits, embedded in an incredibly fragile and and improbable structure of institutions, constituted by the patterns of interaction among millions of other individuals similarly psychologically limited, won’t do better!

That’s right! We can’t just assume that! But once we correct for the fallacy and make our levels of (non-)idealization symmetrical, we are more than justified in believing that the government, on average, isn’t likely to help more than it hurts.

Anyone who has studied economic development will come to suspect that the fraility of human rationality and trust is at the root of most societies’ inabilitity to develop minimally adequate institutions manned with “policymakers” armed with anything but a well-honed predatory instinct. Simply assuming policymakers “armed with knowledge of human psychological weaknesses” that enable them to “shape social arrangements to compensate” for those weakness right after being so thoroughly non-idealistic about human psychology ought to strike us as an embarrassing mistake. This is just like simply assuming perfect human rationality. Goverment is a solution to other problems only if the problem of good government has already been solved (or is even solvable). There is no deus ex machina. There is, of course, a gigantic literature about the quality of government institutions through time. The vast majority of all government institutions and policies ever tried have a record of simply astounding means-ends failure.

When individual prudence breaks down we marry the wrong person, take the wrong job, decide to take the wrong drug, work too much, or vacation too little, etc. And that’s too bad. But it is simple impossible to avoid the truth that government policy is set by the same kind of individual human beings who act on predictions about what is going to make us all better off. There is never a guarantee that these people know what they are doing. There probably cannot be a guarantee. All we can do is mitigate the possibility for harm by keeping power away from deeply imperfect people. When government institutions go sour the people running them start unjust wars, slaughter their own citizens by the millions, systematically oppress their own people, keep them in squalor generation after generation, or starve them by the droves. This is, one must admit, rather worse than the anxiety and dismay of an individual who has made some mistakes about her own happiness.

There are, of course, some notable successes in government. It is of course possible for there to be genuine experts, and for government appointed genuine experts to do a good job. We will miss you Alan Greenspan! But, then again, some people aren’t systematically means-ends irrational, either. In the best case, individuals don’t need a government crutch to help them do the right thing. And in the best case, government crutches can help. But our world isn’t the best case. Often the best we can do is put up and defend strong barriers against the worst case. My worry is that the cognitive paternalists are unwittingly eroding those barriers.