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Two Important New Books on Knowledge, Bias, and Paternalism

Added 10-17-20 12:21:01am EST - “Recent works by longtime intellectual antagonists Cass Sunstein and Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman have a surprising amount of common ground.” -


Posted By TheNewsCommenter: From “Two Important New Books on Knowledge, Bias, and Paternalism”. Below is an excerpt from the article.

Traditional paternalists argue that they know what's good for you regardless of your own preferences. Prohibition advocates, for example, claimed that people must be forced to stay away from "Demon Rum" no matter how much they like to drink, or how carefully they weigh the costs and benefits of doing so. Over the last twenty years, however, intellectually sophisticated paternalists have largely shifted to a different rationale for restricting freedom of choice: "libertarian paternalism."

Unlike old-fashioned paternalists, advocates of LP argue that choice must sometimes be restricted in order to enable people to better pursue their own "true" preferences—to do what they themselves would want to do, but for the pernicious influence of ignorance and cognitive biases. LP enthusiasts also contend that policymakers can simultaneously improve decision-making and minimize coercion by using carefully calibrated "nudges" rather than the crude blunderbuss tactics of "hard" paternalists. For their part, critics claim that the behaviorial research underlying LP isn't as robust as advocates assert, and that the new paternalistic policies have many of the same flaws as the old.

Two recently published books suggest that there may be more room for common ground between defenders and critics of LP than previously assumed.  The first is Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don't Want to Know by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, one of the leading advocates of LP. The second, Escaping Paternalism: Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy, by economists Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman (RW), perhaps the leading academic critics of LP.  Sunstein and RW are longtime adversaries in the academic debate over paternalism. But these two books have so much in common that readers unfamiliar with the authors' history might assume they are all on the same side.

Rizzo and Whitman's book is by far the most thorough and insightful critique of "libertarian paternalism" published so far. The first half of the book criticizes paternalists' arguments that individuals acting in the market and civil society are prone to systematic cognitive errors that justify policymakers in intervening to ensure that their actions better align with their "true" preferences. The second half  assumes that these cognitive problems are real, but offers a wide-ranging critique of paternalistic claims that government regulators are likely to improve the situation rather than make it worse.

In the first part of their book, RW offer a helpful critique of the standard neoclassical economic conception of rationality (or at least more extreme versions thereof) underpinning many paternalist arguments. For example, they dispute the notion that it is necessarily irrational if a person lacks complete and consistent preferences that cover all possible choices that might come before her.  In many cases, developing a complete set of preferences and ensuring that they are all consistent just isn't worth the cost of doing so, in terms of time and effort.


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