Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stuck in Society With You

Libertarian Mathew Kahn argues that climate change is real, however in our attempts to adapt to it, we ought not incentivize irrational choices, such as building levees so that people can continue to live in low-lying areas.

Humans are incredibly irrational decision makers.  Assuming they are not underlies our greatest tendencies to apologize for inequality and injustice.  We tell ourselves, "It is their own fault.  They could have done differently.  They made a rational choice."  Yet again and again, we see that people do not.  Any businessman who has ever depended on advertising knows this well.  Any politician who has calculated his message knows this.  Any one who has struggled with diet, a budget, or quitting smoking knows this.

The problem is that it is near impossible to understand the irrational drivers of our own behavior.  With great work, we can find ways to counteract this irrationality, but it is largely in the darkness that we work.  God knows what it is that is driving you to take that bite of the fattening donut?  Your bad childhood?  The time you spent reading Zorba the Greek?  An impulsive temperament?  All the brain research and psychology that exists can only give us the faintest hints.  The fact is that the causal mechanisms at work in any given second, when each of our billions of neurons involved in the choice is firing off with its 7000 connections, making up the entirety of consciousness and unconsciousness, is unfathomable.

We learn to counteract the irrationality, in order to supposedly act more rationally.  Yet are we really acting more rationally, or have we simply been able to design habits for ourselves that have out-maneuvered the negative impulses?  "Rationality" is merely shorthand for *choosing the correct option*. 

In a fundamental way, society can be thought of as a vast, evolving system of habit formation.  At the individual level, we feel very rational and "in control".  But at the macro level, patterns emerge that tell a very different story.  Instead of individual, rational actors we see the products of systems such as family, peer relations, education, government, and social norms that conspire to design not only an individual's ability to make correct choices, but - more foundational still - an individual's ability to design for himself the ability to make correct choices.  Thus, the choice as whether to eat the donut or not is dependent not only on an individual's choice, but the individual's prior ability to have designed for himself the ability to make that choice.  For instance, after week three of having successfully fought the 8am donut cravings, the choice to not eat the donut will be far easier than it was on day one.  (I'm not actually hip to diet design, but you get my point: successful routines for habit formation are successful because they are routines, not individual, isolated choices).

So, does this mean that no one ever ought be held accountable?  Should we all get to make base, easy, immediately gratifying decisions with no concern for external effects, with the excuse that we had no control?  This is generally the first response many have to the argument I have presented.  Yet this is a case in which patient, nuanced thinking is called for!  If you will recall, I spoke of the element of social design in individual decision-making.  Just as we would set for ourselves a course of habit formation that we hope will bring about correct decisions, so too we set for society a course of policy that we hope will bring about correct social behavior.  So too we design our formal and informal social institutions.  The idea is to look ahead and put in place systems that we hope will flourish.  This utilitarianism makes the question of blame somewhat irrelevant.  Policies ought be designed that foster, through the mechanics of incentives, social good. 

If the question was mere utility, it could be answered by either side of the aisle.  It could mean lowering taxes on the "job-creators", harsh sentencing for criminals, or letting residents in low-lying areas suffer rising tides without assistance - the right-wing model.  Or it could mean a more left wing emphasis on the benefits of redistribution, leniency, or shared burdens.  To the extent that these are subjective, evidence based controversies, the chips will fall where they will.

But what is removed from the equation is the moral posturing that has traditionally been wrapped up in left vs. right politics: no one is to blame.  So, even if we will all benefit from "job-creators" getting tax breaks, they are not inherently morally superior by their good works.  They have merely been the recipients of social circumstance that have allowed them - being in the right place at the right time - to do good things.  We can argue until the cows come home about the extent to which their work is actually good, and how much money is the right incentive for them to continue whatever it is they are doing.  But in the end, they are products of *us*, as the saying might go, "we built them".

And so too did we build those who, at the other end of the spectrum, we now see are playing out what society has designed for them in the form of irrational, self-indulgent or poorly-planned behavior.  We can also argue about the extent to which these people's behavior is all that bad, or whether by circumstance it appears so (the "negligent mother" may indeed be working two jobs and thus have no ability to look after her delinquent son).  But regardless, again, "we built them".  So when designing policies that, in the interest of deterrence, or disincentivization, will create hardship on individuals caught in such a tangled web of causality, we must admit that, as they are not the originators of their actions, rather society is to blame, their hardship is a form of Earthly purgatory. 

It may allow us to sleep easier at night believing that the many who suffer do so at their own choice.  But it is a convenient fiction. 

I confess much of this argument is aimed squarely at the right, who though at times concede some degree of social determinism, generally downplay it, if not deny it completely.  After all, who then, if not government is going to help enfranchise those whom society has failed to give an equal design?  The utilitarian case for less government action is rather weak.  And, more noticeably, a great portion of right-wing framing is not utilitarian at all, but rather a direct appeal to an assumed agency ("I built it"), or merely a sense of unfairness at the notion of social design - redistribution is unfair because well, "I built it".  The truth is that, were government indeed pared down to only its most basic elements, poverty and class-mobility would not suddenly cease, or even diminish.  The supposed moral hazard in provision of social services, or even such things as student loan forgiveness - as former candidate Romney complained about -  is a convenient excuse for a callousness that comes from not seeing individuals as determined by social design, whose ability to make rational choices is constrained by a prior ability to develop in themselves this ability, and so on, outwards into the fabric of socialization.

So I'm all for utilitarian incentives.  But when their effect is serious hardship in the lives of real people, we must ask ourselves if there was not another, better way to have both incentivized good choices, without having allowed such trauma to have occurred.

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