State Decision Making

Its time to pull the college psychology textbook of the shelf and give it a good dusting.  I would advise you brush up on the chapters on behaviorism and re-familiarize yourself with the likes of Pavlov and Skinner. Why pray tell?  In the next few years we are going to see work in their field streaming out of Washington, a flow that should be resisted.

During his campaign President Obama consulted with a behavioral dream team to figure out why people make the choices they do. The group included Dan Ariely of MIT as well as the Univeristy of Chicago coauthors of Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, among others.

The recent buzz about behavior modification has centered on the concept of a choice architecture.  Essentially, there is a landscape of costs and benefits people survey when they make decision.  The goal is to modify this landscape, to design the choice architecture by introducing unnatural consequences so people make the right decision.

In their book Thaler and Sunsein note examples of etching flies into urinals to reduce spillage, painting smaller parking spots to encourage the use of more fuel efficient vehicles, even government programs that discourage teenage pregnancy by giving teenage mothers a dollar for everyday they avoid becoming pregnant again.

Recent legislation is starting to wander down this path of helping citizens make “right” decisions.  The FDA has been authorized to have extreme control over tobacco marketing, and there is discussion in the air of adding a tax to sugary drinks.

Similar action by parents should be applauded.  Moving cookies and other unhealthy snacks to out of reach place and laying out fruit instead should be encouraged as good parenting.  Even the idea given in Nudge of motivating yourself to reach your goals by agreeing to donate to a charity you detest if you don’t achieve them should be explored privately.  Such tactics could have a great effect in improving our choices.  But these techniques are not for the government.

In all other cases, changing the choice architecture is done with the consent of those affected.  The Sox lover agrees to divert their funds to the Cubs Fan Club if they don’t go for a run three times this week.  The government on the other hand may act outside of the will of citizens in trying to help them make the “right” decision.

Also, such a role falls outside the proper scope of government which is to rule or govern between entities, not within them.  The government has too much power to be allowed to so aid individuals in decision making. Those who hold the power to use force to achieve their means must be confined to those areas where the use of force is appropriate.

Behavioral policy in the extreme will lead to a uniformity in people’s choices and actions, all conformed to a proper behavior as defined by the state.  This way dystopia lies.

Adam Rule – MCPP Intern


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