Tyler Cowen has a couple of posts suggesting that there is a serious libertarian argument against initiatives like the US government ‘do-not-call’ list for telemarketers. His argument is that government shouldn’t be in the business of restraining peoples’ spontaneity.
(warning: lengthy argument follows)
To quote the core of Cowen’s argument:
Take those people who have put themselves on the list. Do they really not want to be called? Maybe they are afraid that they really like being called. That they will buy things. That they will be impulsive. Arguably those people have a rational controlling self, and an impulsive buying self, to borrow some language from Thomas Schelling. Why should we assume that the rational controlling self is the only one who counts (do you really want a life devoid of spontaneity?)? Why should our government be in the business of altering this balance in one direction or the other? Isn’t the market a better mechanism for balancing the interests of the conflicting selves? How many of you out there will be consistent? How about a government list for people who do not want to be allowed into casinos? Do not want to be allowed to buy cigarettes at the local 7-11? Do not want to be allowed to order dessert?
Cowen seems to have gotten a lot of email from people who argue either a that telemarketers are evil (which is self evidently true, but beside the point), or b that they themselves never buy from telemarketers. But this doesn’t address Cowen’s two main claims. First, he suggests that the government shouldn’t favour our propensity for self control over our propensity for spontaneity. Second, he states that the market likely provides a better mechanism for balancing spontaneity and rationality than the government. Even if he’s advancing these arguments half in jest, they’re worth thinking about, as they involve some tricky questions for political theorists, philosophers, economists, and others who pontificate on such matters.
Turning to the first point. For starters, no libertarian I, but it seems to me that when Cowen (correctly) argues that people aren’t consistent in their preferences, he’s jumping up and down on some very thin ice for libertarians. Ideas about individual autonomy, and how it’s best expressed through free choice in certain political and economic contexts, usually rest on the implicit claim that there is an individual there, who knows more or less consistently what she wants. If you start positing different ‘selves’ within the individual, with different ideas of what they would like and how to get it, you’re coming dangerously close to saying that people don’t really know what they want. And this, in effect, is what Cowen is arguing. If we want to “balance” rationality and spontaneity, then we want to limit the circumstances under which we can make rational long term choices that constrain us, and prevent us from behaving spontaneously in the future. In short, some kinds of choice should (sometimes) not be open to individuals, even if those choices are likely to harm no-one but the individual herself (and, even then, these choices will only ‘harm’ one aspect of the individual, her spontaneous self as opposed to her rational, controlling self). This seems to me to be a rather tricky argument for a libertarian to make, and to sustain. In fact, it’s the reverse image of some of the arguments made against libertarians – for example that addictive drugs should be illegal, because once we start shooting up, we may not be able to stop. Anti-libertarian arguments of this sort appeal to our long term self-interest as opposed to our short term, ‘spontaneous’ interest in getting high. Cowen’s argument does the reverse, suggesting that our ability to make long term choices should be limited lest it constrain our spontaneity. But, as should be apparent, the two arguments aren’t that far off each other – they both state that we should ‘limit’ one form of choice, in order to facilitate the other. And I suspect that they’re both, in the end, antithetical to libertarianism.
Second, let’s look at the claim that governments provide an inferior means of balancing spontaneity and long term interests than markets. There seem to me to be two claims; one implicit and one explicit. The first doesn’t hold, as far as I can see, and Cowen doesn’t actually provide any evidence in support of the second.
The first more or less implicit claim, is that the do-not-call list is problematic because it’s the government that is organizing it. This seems to me to be a non-starter. The government isn’t constraining choice here, it’s enabling it. More precisely, it is offering a new choice to consumers which they previously didn’t have – of telling telemarketers not to call them. If the government is “altering the balance,” it is doing so by opening up choices rather than shutting them down – i.e. it isn’t restricting the kinds of liberties that libertarians get het up about. It’s not coercing consumers to sign up. The only people who are being coerced are the telemarketers, who are being coerced only to respect the right of others to choose not to be called by them. To put it another way; would libertarians find the scheme objectionable if it was being run entirely by private actors? Say, for example, if the Direct Marketing Association had put together a really workable do-not-call list (rather than the half-arsed effort that it had). I suspect that libertarians would see this as laudable evidence of market forces at work. But the effects on individual consumer choice would be precisely the same.
The second claim that Cowen makes is that markets are a better way of balancing our controlling selves and our spontaneous selves than governments. He doesn’t adduce any real arguments or evidence for thinking that this is likely to be so, and I suspect that he’d have trouble in finding them. 1 In order to evaluate the respective merits of different means to balancing, you’d really have to have some valid and convincing metric for “deciding” the appropriate balance between the different claims of long term enlightened self interest, and short term spontaneity. And damn me if I know of any way of doing this in an intellectually defensible way. I suspect that Cowen’s claim, if you look at it closely, boils down to something like the following. “Markets are more likely than not to favour spontaneity over long term rationality. By and large, I prefer free scope to be given to spontaneity, rather than careful long term planning, when the two come into conflict. Therefore I, and people like me, should prefer markets over government.” Which is all very well and good, but isn’t going to convince people with dissimilar preferences.
Now this is a rather lengthy response to a throwaway argument, but I think there are some interesting issues buried in here. How well does libertarian claims about social order work, if you assume that people are subject to certain kinds of inconsistency? My suspicion, as articulated above, is that they don’t work well at all. How do libertarians deal with individual forms of choice that are deliberately meant to foreclose future choices that the individual might make? Surely, some libertarian, somewhere, has dealt with this set of problems. The only person I know who has done serious work on this is erstwhile analytic Marxist, current day unclassifiable leftie, Jon Elster. Two of his books, Ulysses and the Sirens and Ulysses Unbound, show that these problems are endemic to many important forms of choice.
1 Broader efficiency claims for markets rest, of course, on assumptions about the consistency of preferences, which Cowen has junked at the beginning of his post.
Update: Ogged has further criticisms.
Addendum: Reading over Cowen’s post again, it strikes me that precisely the argument that he’s making over the do-not-call list can be made with regard to the sale of pension plans on the market. Pension providers, by giving us the choice of signing up to schemes where we put away a chunk of our disposable income every month, are altering the balance between our rational controlling selves and our spontaneous selves. As already noted, the actual nature of the provider (government in Cowen’s example; a private firm in mine) is a red herring – the important bit for the argument is how their provision of something affects individual choice.
Addendum II – David Glenn emails to point to this very interesting paper by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which starts from similar arguments about limitations in human rationality and consistency, to argue on behalf of a “libertarian paternalism.” Good, thought-provoking stuff.