Happiness and behavioral stuff again

Via Arts & Letters Daily (again) comes a wonderful (and long) article by Alan Wolfe for the New Republic: “Hedonic Man, The new economics and the pursuit of happiness.” There’s far, far too much for me to discuss in suitable depth here, but, beyond recommending the article, let me pick out a couple of choice bits.

I wholeheartedly agree with Wolfe when he says:

“The social sciences are not just empirical; they are normative, too. It was precisely the insistent normative preference for market-based social arrangements that turned me against Chicago School economics. Governmental regulation is always sub-optimal, they inevitably maintained. Individual freedom is worth more than social equality. If market logic works for firms, surely it can work for recruiting an army, fighting poverty, or providing kidneys. Non-Chicago economists were subtler about these matters, and at times questioned the reliance on markets; but for the many sons and daughters of Milton Friedman, we are hard-wired to be rational choosers, and any efforts we make to direct the course of our actions collectively are bound to fail. Myself, I do not believe that any of these propositions bring us closer to a good society. Other people feel differently. Democracy requires that we argue out our differences. But democratic debate is not well served by pretending that the empirical findings of a single controversial approach in a single academic discipline contain definitive answers to these questions.”

The presentation of economics as a discipline of study certainly does make it seem like we’ve magically cracked the nut of what is the ‘best’ way to organize a society, and, as I’ve argued before, that’s not just dangerous, it’s a misrepresentation of what good economic science is capable of. One reason why it’s a misrepresentation is the measurement issue at work again: to say ‘best’, we need a metric, and to do that we need to ask what people want, to speculate on their motivations and desires. Of course, as misrepresentations go, it’s a tempting one, because from day one of a Principles of Economics course it’s made again and again and again.

Wolfe’s article is built around the review of two books: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (which I’ve talked about before, much to the author’s chagrin, so I won’t return to it now) and Happiness: A Revolution in Economics by Bruno Frey. ‘Happiness’, as discussed by Wolfe, is concerned with exactly that big question in normative social science, which is: what exactly constitutes a ‘good’ outcome? It’s exactly that question that’s the dangerous misunderstanding within economics, the dangerous belief that we know what’s ‘good’.

Wolfe talks at length about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the pioneers of what has become ‘behavioral economics’, and I admit that I share Richard Thaler’s reaction, as reported by Wolfe:

“When I read this paper,” [Thaler] wrote of Kahneman and Tversky’s classic article “Judgment Under Uncertainty,” which appeared in 1974, “I could hardly contain myself.”

He talks further about the supposed ‘revolution’ in economics to account for the kind of behavior documented by Kahneman and Tversky and the whole slew of experiments run by economists since:

“One has to wonder why the revolution in economics failed so badly even before it really got off the ground. Neoclassical economics may in some ways be preferable to what the revolutionaries offer, but it remains a vulnerable approach, stuck in unrealistic assumptions about human behavior and all too complacent about the beneficial equilibria established by markets. Nor can one deny the ingeniousness of the early days of economic psychology, especially the inventive puzzles that Kahneman and Tversky devised. If ever a field were ripe for revolution, it is economics. Yet if these two books are any indication, supply and demand, marginal utility, rational choice, and cost-benefit analysis are not going away. At best, economists will tweak their models a bit to account for some of our odder calculations. More likely, they will simply reiterate their belief that we need not examine the internal mechanisms of utility satisfaction because the price someone is willing to pay for something is really all we need to know.”

Again, though, I offer this as the reason why the ‘revolution’ has ‘failed’: we simply can never say what motivates people, whether a person is “rational” or not. ‘Neoclassical economics’ does not restrict the range of assumptions one can make about human behavior. It is therefore completely resilient to any evidence on how people act in a given situation. That’s not a defense of the approach, it’s a fact. It’s distressing, because my prejudice is definitely to agree that economics is ‘complacent’ about the superiority of markets (again, because we ignore the variety of normative metrics of comparison), and that there’s too much arcana.

We need true normative debate. Look again at what Wolfe says about economics: “it remains a vulnerable approach, stuck in unrealistic assumptions about human behavior and all too complacent about the beneficial equilibria established by markets”. It’s a mistake to conflate this problem – the arrogant assumption that we know what’s ‘best’ – with the neoclassical assumptions on human behavior, because, as I’ve argued repeatedly, the method of scientific economics doesn’t actually assume anything about human behavior, as evidenced by the fact that the ‘behavioral revolution’ is comfortably within the confines of ‘neoclassical economics’.

The real revolution would be quieter, and would say something much more familiar: keep your science separate from your opinion.