Douglas Rogers of George Mason University recently reviewed Peter Ubel’s 2009 book Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics—and Why It Mattersfor the Journal of Value Inquiry. It is a good review, and I recommend it. I also recommend reading Ubel’s book; it is a deeply flawed, even frightening, book, but it is important to see how an unapologetic defender of rule by scientists constructs his position.
In his review of Ubel’s book, Rogers writes:
The author’s [i.e., Ubel’s] conclusion in favor of regulation designed to correct irrational consumer choices, however, has an implied premise. That premise being that regulators themselves have the rationality, knowledge and incentives required to influence consumer’s [sic] behavior in a way that increases their utility.
Ubel does indeed fail to show why all the problems that he alleges beset the average consumer and make it difficult for the consumer to make good (or “rational”) choices do not also beset those whom Ubel would install as our rulers. Ubel’s argument is motivated by the best of intentions: Sometimes people make bad choices; we scientists know what good choices for them are; so compassion requires us to help people make good choices. It is thus “madness” to allow people the freedom to make choices in “free markets” when we know not only (a) that they will often make bad choices but also (b) what the good choices are.
Rogers rightly points out that an argument about pervasive bias, irrationality, short-sightedness, etc. can be self-defeating as well. And he deftly presses the objection that it is “unclear whether policy makers understand consumer’s [sic] preferences better than the consumers themselves do.”
But Ubel will not be moved by that claim. He is not interested in satisfying consumers’ preferences: He is interested in helping them make “good” and “rational” choices—whether that is their preference or not. Ubel claims that scientists have been able to learn a great deal about human nature and about what makes for happy and healthy human lives; it is on the basis of that expert knowledge that he advocates coercive measures. Arguing, as Rogers does, that perhaps Ubel is mistaken or perhaps he overestimates what expert scientists know is, while true and important, nevertheless already conceding too much of the argument.
There is another undefended premise in Ubel’s argument that is even more fundamental to his position. It lurks in this sentence from Rogers’s review, recapitulating Ubel’s position:
If they could discipline themselves, if they had the willpower, they would choose not to engage in such behaviors, thus a benevolent regulator should use coercion to help the weak willed achieve their goals.
But that does not follow. That is, it does not follow from the fact that under different circumstances people would choose otherwise than they do under actual circumstances, that therefore someone else has the justified authority to intervene to change circumstances, choices, or both.
Suppose for the sake of argument we were to concede to Ubel that he and his colleagues possess the expert knowledge they claim. It would still not follow that he therefore possesses the authority to coercively limit or direct others’ choices. He still must make the case that he should be endowed with this authority.
There are many ways he might attempt to justify it. Perhaps he believes he draws his authority from God; perhaps he thinks that whoever can manage to seize the mechanisms of coercive power is entitled to wield them; perhaps he thinks that people with high citations index ratings should rule; perhaps he thinks that the philosopher’s (the scientist’s) apprehension of the Good (the Healthy) entitles him to rule; etc. I suspect I would find all such attempted justifications wanting, but that is by the by. The point is that he must still make that case.
Until Ubel has explained why having expert knowledge entitles someone to rule over others, which he has not in this book, we do not need to argue about whether his expert knowledge is in fact as good as he claims it is. It is irrelevant.