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You Choose

The assault on choice continues. See this story in today’s New York Times. This paragraph gives a good flavor of the entire article:

[University of Chicago economist Richard] Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School suggested that it is proper for government, or an employer, to set boundaries to choice to achieve desired social objectives, an approach they call "libertarian paternalism."

What are the "desired social objectives"? How are they chosen? The range of options – from among which the "desired" ones are to be chosen – is vast. Do our "desired social objectives" include absolute income equality among families? Zero rates of divorce? Reducing the number of abortions? Curing cancer within ten years? Putting a man on Mars? No more petroleum imports? Reducing air pollution nationwide by 10% annually? 25% annually? 50% annually? Eliminating the trade deficit? Completely eliminating tobacco consumption? Reducing alcoholism by 5%? By 30%? TiVo in every family room?

Talk about a superfluity of choices! And whichever ones are selected will apply to us all, as a society. Because government will be entrusted to direct us all to pursue many of these "social objectives," we’d better make sure that the process for choosing which "social objectives" to pursue is pretty darn fool-proof. After all, what if we err in choosing the best set of "social objectives"? Or what if government inadvertently misdirects us toward pursuing some "social objectives" that are not among those truly chosen? We’re stuck – for there’s less individual, decentralized experimentation going on that can alert those of us on the wrong track to switch to a better track.


Elsewhere in the New York Times story, the writer says that "empirical studies have found that people, regardless of intelligence, do not always choose well."

Gee. People don’t always choose well. Are empirical studies needed to determine such a fact? Does any respectable school of economics, theory of psychology, or political philosophy rest on the assumption that people choose well always?

One vital theory of choice was explained by Kenneth Arrow. Whatever the problems with individual choice, they are small beer next to those that afflict collective choices.


Also on this topic, Cafe Hayek’s own Russ Roberts debated Barry Schwartz last week on NPR.