May 8, 2006 12:28PM

Stumbling on Paternalism?

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert's new book, Stumbling on Happiness, appears to be all the rage. Cato Institute adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen thought it was the best book he had read this year, until he forgot, and nominated David Warsh's Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations instead. In any case, Gilbert is one of the world's experts about "affective forecasting," i.e., our ability to predict how we will feel in the future. Generally, we overshoot the mark. Here's a bit from Scott Stossel's review in the NYT:

Events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think; things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. As evidence, Gilbert cites studies showing that a large majority of people who endure major trauma (wars, car accidents, rapes) in their lives will return successfully to their pre-trauma emotional state — and that many of them will report that they ended up happier than they were before the trauma. It's as though we're equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.

Why might this be of political interest? Recall that part of J.S. Mill's famous libertarian argument against paternalistic interference in On Liberty is based in the following claim:

. . . with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else.

If we are systematically wrong in our predictions about how our circumstances will relate to our feelings, then it might seem that experts, like Daniel Gilbert, may be better placed than we are to know what is and is not going to make us happy. Some paternalism may be called for after all.

There are several things to say in response to this line of thinking. Let's set aside the tricky moral replies, and focus on a major practical problem for teasing paternalistic implications out of our "affective ignorance."

Even if some experts know better than we do what will make us happy, it is very unlikely that those experts will be the ones determining paternalistic policy. Consider that the very same people who make systematic mistakes about their future feelings are the voters in democratic elections. And, as Bryan Caplan's work shows [.doc], voters are likely to be even more profoundly mistaken about politics than about their own affairs.

Successful politicians are likely to reflect the biases of the voters. Take the War on Terror, for example. Gilbert's work implies that whatever the harm of another terrorist attack may be, it probably will not be as bad as we imagine, and we would get over the wound rather more quickly than we think (indeed, more quickly than it may be comfortable to acknowledge). But that doesn't keep voters or politicians (who share the same psychology, after all) from being extremely anxious about another terrorist attack.

There's a good chance that lots of people mispredict how bad things would be if drugs were legalized, or if same-sex marriages were legally recognized. The consequence is that we get politicians who appeal to us because they make the same errors---or even because they convince us that things will be even worse than we thought (which was already way worse than it would really be) if they aren't elected. And these are the people who determine paternalistic policies, not experts like Daniel Gilbert.

Even if you ask politicians to appoint experts, they will not consult experts on expertise to determine who the real experts are. Their beliefs about who is and isn't an expert, like their beliefs about anything else, will reflect their biases. If I were President, Leon Kass might be the last person I would think of to head my Council on Bioethics. But if you look at his bio, you can certainly see why he looks like an expert to some people. The upshot is that happiness-based paternalistic policy may be more likely to be based on the work of Dr. Rick Warren than on the work of Dr. Daniel Gilbert.

So, a realistic account of human psychology shows that we can be pretty bad at predicting what is really going to make us happy. But a similarly realistic account of actually existing political institutions shows that they are likely to be even worse than individual decision-makers. If we make systematic errors, then democracy will simply aggregate our errors. And politicians, who make the same errors we do, will reflect our errors, and will often have an incentive to reinforce them to their political benefit. Even if expert knowledge exists---even if Daniel Gilbert knows better than you do about what will and won't make you happy---democratic institutions will not be reliable at identifying it or applying it.