Economists have spent the last 240 years – ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations – trying to understand how decentralised economies work. In that time they have established that the price mechanism does a pretty good job of coordinating economic activity, and that profits provide excellent incentives to stimulate human action.
In the course of understanding how economies operate, economists have had to develop a working model of human behaviour, and various simplifying assumptions have been made. An example of such an assumption is that people are pretty smart, and best know their own self-interest. That is the so-called rationality assumption.
But, of course, there are many rationality assumptions. Standard economic theory maintains what can be described as ‘strong-form’ rationality. In this view of rationality, the human brain is an unlimited resource and can easily and quickly compute all outcomes and make choices that maximise satisfaction and well-being.
Then there is a ‘semi-strong form’ of rationality – bounded rationality – associated with 1978 economics laureate Herbert Simon. He suggested that people intend to be rational but that there are limits to rationality. Finally ‘weak-form’ rationality, associated with the Austrian school, suggests that people economise on their brain power as they would any other resource and make use of rules of thumb and heuristics to make choices and decisions.
So the notion that economists have a single dogmatic view of human behaviour and rationality is something of a straw man, if not actually a whipping boy when non-economists debate economists.
Enter into this milieu Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, and the latest economics laureate awarded for his work in behavioural economics. Thaler is a worthy Nobel winner. He has successfully challenged the mainstream and standard assumption of strong-form rationality. He has brought respectability to what would have been heresy as recently as the 1970s. Many of the insights of his research agenda and his followers have been profound, others have been trivial. That is to be expected from any productive scholar and intellectual movement.
What is unexpected is how successful behavioural economics has been in a policy sense. Popularly and politically, Thaler is best known for his book Nudge, written with Cass Sunstein. This remarkable book both established a new theoretical framework for government intervention and successfully marketed it to the governing class.
Nudge was published in 2008. By 2010, the Conservative government in Britain had established a ‘nudge unit’ within the Cabinet Office. Many other governments have followed suit. The rapid leap that nudge theory made from seminar room to law-of-the-land has been unprecedented.
These days, lots of policies are routinely described as ‘nudges’, and the word is as much a political branding exercise as anything. But Thaler and Sunstein were very specific about what they meant by a nudge. As they describe it, we all have two ‘semiautonomous’ selves: the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’. The doer is irrational – thinking only about the short term and gratuitous pleasures. The planner is rational – thinking about the future, focusing on getting healthy and saving money.
The planner makes the best choices; the planner makes the choices we don’t regret and would make again. In nudge theory, government should design systems that allow us to favour what our planner selves would rather do, rather than our reckless doer selves.
In this way, Thaler and Sunstein avoid one of the central critiques of the nanny state – the nanny state wants to impose its own preferences on others. Both the planner and doer’s preferences are our own. We still get to choose. Thaler and Sunstein describe nudge theory as ‘libertarian’ paternalism.
But it has some serious practical and conceptual problems.
Rather than just leaving choice to the market, nudge theory says the government should try to discern a set of best preferences from our worst ones – but not impose its own. Then it should regulate the economy so it favours the choices of our planner selves, but doesn’t force us into any specific choice. This sounds like hard work for a government.
More fundamentally, is it true that we have two separate, distinct selves? Nudge theory needs there to be two distinct systems so the government can choose between them. ‘Dual systems’ theory, as it was known in the psychological literature, has now been replaced by theories that describe our cognitive processes as a continuum or graphical space. The upshot is that it is not meaningful to say we have two sets of preferences – good ones and bad ones – but an infinite number of sets of preferences.
With this shift, psychologists seem to have coalesced around the weak-form Austrian view of rationality: that rationality itself is a matter of trade-offs and choices. One could even say this was Adam Smith’s view. People are a rich mix of passion, interest and sympathy – not all-knowing, rational calculators.
Thaler’s contribution has been to help return us to that understanding. But it’s a big leap from the observation that ‘people are not always perfectly rational’ to ‘bureaucrats can make us rational’.
(Image: The Australian Financial Review 2017)