Over at The Hedgehog Review—the journal of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture—Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, responding to a recent piece by Richard Williams, argue that libertarians are overly concerned about government limits on personal freedom:
Libertarian anxieties about the “nanny state” tend to focus on governmental incursions into freedom, usually identified with new legislation: Don’t tell me I can’t do what I want!, the thinking goes. Williams updates this concern to address the more subtle form that policy “tweaks” in light of behavioral economics might take: And don’t make me want what I don’t want!
This new fear is not just that government will limit the exercise of our agency but that it might also shape it in some way. Thus the complaint that a government that uses behavioral economics to tailor its policies will “treat you like a child.” What this assumes is that you are naturally an adult, someone who is in complete control of yourself, including your desires—absent government “nudging,” your selection when buying a car, to use Williams’ example, will be wholly innocent of influence from forces outside your own bare (and perhaps given) preferences. On this account, behavioral economics is not only a form of tyranny; it is also a form of creepy mind control.
But this anxiety rests upon a flawed and misleading picture of the human person, especially with regard to how desires are shaped. The fact is, our agency is always being shaped by external factors. We shouldn’t have needed behavioral economics to show us that we are not as rational and totally in control of our choices as we’d like. The homo economicus ideal of the rational utility-maximizing individual, impervious to outside influence, whose solitary choices and subjective preferences essentially construct his or her self, would have been laughed out of court by Plato, or Aristotle, or the Stoics, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or even Hume or Kant, had anyone been so clueless as to propose it to them. Modern thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Freud, and Bonhoeffer have also exposed the inadequacy of this picture of freedom. Even today, it doesn’t take a scientist to prove that such an account cannot make sense of the reality of our own lives. Not one of us grows to adulthood without being shaped by forces beyond ourselves, including our parents, our peers, our schoolteachers, and our cultural context.
I agree with Mathewes and McRorie that all of our choices are limited (the distinction between “shaping” and “limiting” is largely superfluous)—our bodies, our circumstances, our education, our brains, all have a limiting affect on our wills.
But not all limits are the same. Some are natural (my brain’s chemical balance–or lack thereof); others are established by habit or tradition (kissing hello and goodbye in France), the result of technology (the invention of the automobile), or other such things. In many cases, the limiting effect of the constraint is a secondary result of the activity or event. Cars were not invented so that I could not ride a horse to work in Houston, though this is one limiting effect of the invention.
While many governmental regulations are motivated—at least in theory—by a desire to do some good (limit pollution, for example, or make Americans more healthy), the limits imposed by such regulations are not a secondary effect but the very essence of the laws and regulations themselves. It’s what they do—limit certain activities. Mathewes and McRorie fail to make this important distinction.
Furthermore, while advertising may be one kind of constraint whose primary purpose (like regulation) is to limit (or shape) choice, there is an important difference here, too. Governments have far more power than individuals or corporations to make and enforce limits. Steve Jobs may have wanted all Americans to buy only Apple products, but the best advertising in the world could not have made this happen. But governments, if they so choose, can force us to buy certain kinds of light bulbs or health insurance.
Furthermore, history has shown that governmental limits are difficult to remove. This also makes them rather different from the shaping of advertising, which often only requires a click of the mouse or a press of the button on the remote to suppress.
All this to say, you don’t need to believe in an unconstrained free will to be concerned about the nanny state.