Arnold Kling  

On Neuroeconomics and Paternalism

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Will Wilkinson writes,


At best, neuroeconomics shows that peoples' representation of their best interest shifts from one decision context to the next as the brain shifts its resources from one brain region to another. Neither neuroscience nor economics speaks to which representation of our interest is the right one. That would be a substantive value judgment that goes well beyond science.

Read the whole thing.

Some interpreters of neuroeconomics appear to argue that:

1. Individuals make decisions that are not "rational" by economic standards.

2. With new means to study the brain, we can show that these irrational decisions are correlated with greater usage of the emotional part of the brain.

3. Therefore, government paternalism is justified in steering people away from the decisions that are correlated with emotion and toward those decisions that are correlated with reason.

Wilkinson explains why this argument is an intellectual swindle.

I suspect that the ratio of emotion to reason is higher in people's political choices than in their economic choices. If you value reason, this would argue for trying to expand the scope for individual choice and reducing the scope for government.

Murray Edelman's description of politics as the manipulation of emotional symbols is consistent with a libertarian philosophy, although Edelman himself failed to make the link. See my post on Edelman.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Chris writes:

Aren't these people that argue about people using emotion as justification for paternalism the same people that argue that we should be maximizing happiness?

Those two arguments seem to be mutually exclusive.

Mike writes:

While many neuro- and behavioral economists have made unjustified leaps from research to policy recommendation, these unjustified leaps are no different from similar leaps made in many, many economics articles over the past century. It is in the nature of the beast, and perhaps not from the more rational-cogitating side of the beast, to take what little one knows about something and try to fashion a rule for everyone to live by.

If neurology existed in the time of Aristotle and if it had been applied to people throwing objects, it would have found:

1. Individuals throw objects in ways that are not "rational" by the standards of Aristotelian physics.

2. With new means to study the brain, we can show that these irrational decisions are correlated with greater usage of the more primitive parts of the brain.

3. Therefore, government paternalism is justified in steering people away from the decisions that are correlated with instinct and toward those decisions that are correlated with reason.

In this case, we can see that what appears to be rational is not always better.

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