Are humans irrational or are they just dumb? That depends upon what you MEAN by the word “irrational”.
I will use these definitions:
- Irrational = failing to use your reasoning faculties correctly.
- Dumb = not having enough information.
Fun Example: let reason be grammar and information be vocabulary.
Having a strong use of grammar is worthless without a vocabulary. And having a lot of vocabulary without any grammar makes communication nearly impossible. You need both.
Can these be taught? Of course. When learning a new language, it helps (a lot) to have someone to guide you in your acquisition of both grammar and vocabulary. But eventually, you’ll be on your own and you’ll do just fine.
In other words, (platitude alert!) education is good: learn and practice the skills of rationality and gather more facts about the world, how it works, yourself, and how you work, etc.
You don’t need perpetual guidance (paternalism), you need to learn the facts and skills that will allow you to guide yourself.
There’s a parable somewhere about a teaching a man to fish…
Today’s Paper: On the Supposed Evidence for Libertarian Paternalism, by Gerd Gigerenzer.
He begins with two quotes:
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people …” — John Adams
“Bounded rationality is not irrationality. … On the contrary, I think there is plenty of evidence that people are generally quite rational; that is, they usually have reasons for what they do.” — Herbert Simon
Can the general public learn to deal with risk and uncertainty, or do authorities need to steer people’s choices in the right direction? Libertarian paternalists argue that results from psychological research show that our reasoning is systematically flawed and that we are hardly educable because our cognitive biases resemble stable visual illusions. For that reason, they maintain, authorities who know what is best for us need to step in and steer our behavior with the help of “nudges.” Nudges are nothing new, but justifying them on the basis of a latent irrationality is. In this article, I analyze the scientific evidence presented for such a justification. It suffers from narrow logical norms, that is, a misunderstanding of the nature of rational thinking, and from a confirmation bias, that is, selective reporting of research. These two flaws focus the blame on individuals’ minds rather than on external causes, such as industries that spend billions to nudge people into unhealthy behavior. I conclude that the claim that we are hardly educable lacks evidence and forecloses the true alternative to nudging: teaching people to become risk savvy.
What exactly is “Libertarian Paternalism”? He quotes Rebonato:
Libertarian paternalism is a set of interventions aimed at overcoming people’s stable cognitive biases by exploiting them in such a way as to steer their decisions towards the choices they themselves would make if they were rational.
I wouldn’t call this “libertarian” at all, it’s simply paternal. Parents do this with children because children are… children. If this is the basis for a government, then that government does not recognize adults in a way that gives the word “adult” meaning.
Do (should) adults have agency that is worth respecting?
Yes. But it needs to be cultivated the way an athlete’s talent is. It begins as a latent potential. But with work it becomes a developed skill.
Conclusion: More Risk Savvy Citizens, Less Nudging
… the true alternative to blaming and nudging people is to educate them.
Nudging people without educating them means infantilizing the public.
Our citizens are infantalized enough. We should be pushing back against this trend, not promoting it.
The government certainly does have a role in the lives of it’s citizens as citizens. But it is in their development, in the moments of childhood that teach the skills of citizenship (our reasoning ability and the total amount of facts we know) in our public schools, not at the final moment of an adult decision.
Without adults, democracy is doomed to fail.
Now go lift something heavy,