Peter Ubel and Madness

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.

6 thoughts on “Peter Ubel and Madness

  1. Thanks. Once a GMU “scholar” (and also to some extend a Pileus “scholar”) deems a book on economics evil I’m surely interested in the book because it must be with 99% probability on the point.

  2. Nice meta-review. Assuming that his arguments are “might makes right” and the alleviation of his guilt, it can be shown that his goals are both impossible and ill-founded.

    Take crack cocaine for the first instance. There can be few things known by all to be definitively bad for a person, and few policies so vigorously enforced as its prohibition, but the policy to change behavior based on this near-scientific fact is a complete failure.

    Then add to this the ever-evolving landscape of both hard science and social sciences. Each generation sees the previous as both misguided and lacking sufficient information, if not downright evil. Any real scientist knows that his current ideas are bound to change and to be merely working on best-available data. Therefore, any policies implemented today are bound to be shown to be wrong. This is causing harm for the sake of hubris (and ultimately retarding the progress of knowledge).

    It sounds as though Ubel would have felt comfortable with the eugenicists, sterilizers and prohibitionists of a century ago. No doubt he, being a creation of a later generation, would call them abhorrent today, but their motivations, rationalizations, and prescriptions differ little.

    The “gardener of society” model has proven to be a failure. No need to repeat the failed lessons of history on this one.

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