Do we have the right to be wrong?

The pandemic, and the consequent decisions taken by our and other governments, have confronted us with the question of the extent of our autonomy. Although we are aware of the exceptional nature of the situation, the matter about the right that assists each individual to make decisions about their own life returns more strongly.

In this sense, we can wonder: How do we make decisions? Are we rational beings? Are thus our decision-making processes rational or we tend to act based on emotions, instincts, or heuristics? Even if we think in terms of choices rather than of actions, do we have enough evidence to think that we rationally choose between options? And if so, can we find the optimal solutions for our problems? Can we evaluate the optimality of our decisions?

The rationality of our actions and our decision-making processes have been widely discussed, not only in the field of economics but also in the legal, political, and sociological realms. Some authors have proposed that our decisions are not based on perfect information or precise though-processes, as Friedrich Hayek, who enlightened us about dispersed knowledge in society or Herbert Simon , who showed us how limited rationality works in real decision-making situations.

More recently, various theories such as behavioral economics and several experiments conducted by scholars from different disciplines, such as those conducted by Carl Sunstein, have showed that individuals act influenced by cognitive limitations and emotional biases. For example, some of these studies have shown how, influenced by these biases, we fail in our perception of the risk, miscalculating the odds we have of suffering certain diseases or how our choices are influenced by the way the relevant information is presented (framing). Thus, it has long been revealed that human actions and choices are not the result of a perfectly rational thought-process, and such discoveries were very useful in predicting certain patterns of behavior.

Personally, I have always found these theories fascinating, showing us that our mind does not work as the precise instrument that other visions have proposed. These “limitations” of our rationality and cognitive capacity have always led me to conclude that we must assume a humble position regarding what we can and cannot do in terms of public policies or the “construction” of social and political reality. Even this humility should be applied to scientific knowledge that manifests itself in constant change and revision. What is worrying is that, recently, this type of analysis has made a jump from the descriptive realm to the normative one, obtaining prescriptive conclusions from these experiments.

On the other hand, nowadays it is common to find that, from different perspectives and schools, subjective rights of all kinds are multiplied. It seems that individuals enjoy -at least theoretically- not only all the rights constitutionally recognized, the rights established by international human rights treatises and all the tacit or unwritten rights but also the collective rights (adding several generations). It is discussed from the right to elect and to be elected (i.e., lowering the age of vote) to the right to enjoy a healthy environment. In addition, from diverse political agendas, it is proposed the widening of all rights enjoyed by people, groups and even animals. We could discuss at length about these rights and obligations involving third parties – not only to respect them but also, in many cases, to take responsibility for the effective enjoyment of them.

But it would seem that, among all these rights that we enjoy or intend to enjoy, the right to be wrong does not appear. Everything is permitted (again, in theory) while individuals live according to the standards or goals to accepted by the community and the State at a given time. From different perspectives we are constantly offered advice and suggestions to achieve the ideal that is presented almost as indisputable: a long, healthy, and calm life (not without some ingredient of novelty or adventure). Not only from the philosophical and theological views -that indicate that human life seems to have happiness, virtue, personal flourishing, or any other transcendent purpose as its goal- but also from more scientific perspectives that provide us with details about what our limitations are in making the right decisions about how to lead a full life. They all seem to agree in proposing a “perfectionist” ideal of human life.

However, when combined these two tendencies of thought -that is, on the one hand, the perfectionist ideal of human life and, secondly, a clear vision about human limitations for making good decisions or planning courses of action, it appears this idea that it is necessary to “underpin”, help or direct the decisions of individuals with the intention to help them that they achieve such ideal ends.

Just to illustrate this point outside the case of the pandemic, we note that all political views coincide in “guiding” citizens when it comes to eating and healthy habits. In this regard, if directing citizens consumption is concerned, much of the political range (conservatism, social democracy, and even the left) seem to agree in wanting to provide healthy standards that everyone should enjoy. This is reflected in a variety of decisions made by governments from one “ideal individual” – which range from prohibiting table salt in restaurants, forcing stores to not sell alcohol at a certain time of the night (and not only limiting the sale to adults as might be expected), forcing food producers or distributors to include a lot of information about its components in packaging, etc. The question does not end here: smoking tobacco, for example, has been almost completely banned everywhere (and not only in closed public spaces but also in open spaces and even in many buildings or premises for exclusive private use).

Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves the question: Do we have the right or not to decide about our lives (our body, our health, etc.)? Can adults without serious cognitive problems -beyond those biases named above that we all “suffered”- with their legitimate autonomy, freedom, and responsibility and, if you like, access to public information about the possible consequences of their actions, choose to assume risks? Do them have the right to put salt to their food, although there are numerous studies that show a correlation between salt intake and high blood pressure? Don’t all those who choose to paraglide or drive a car on a high-speed avenue also take risks? Why are some elections forbidden or more “observed” than others?

So, from this perspective that combines perfectionism and observation of the cognitive limitations of individuals: Does this lead us directly to conclude that our decisions should be replaced or at least “influenced” or “improved” – as suggested by the nudge theory – by the decision of a public official or an expert scientist? Do we let a nutritionist tell us the ideal diet based on recent generic scientific studies? Do we allow an official or civil servant to indicate what activity / sport / food / drink / medical treatment / insurance should we carry out / practice / consume / submit to / hire considering the general statistics of the population for my age / sex / social condition? Would we allow this civil servant to “suggest” us the way of interacting with other individuals or habits to adopt?

To answer this question, it could help us to bring here the conceptual distinction proposed by Dr. Martín Diego Farrell in his essay on “Nino, democracy and utilitarianism”. There Farrell proposes two alternatives to justify democracy: The first one holds that all adults, free of physical or mental impairments, are the best judges of their interests and, in its turn, the second one points out that the same adults would be the best judges of their own preferences.

Farrell argues that the former is indefensible by the number of counterexamples we can find in which an adult seems not to know his best objective interest (perhaps knowable by an expert without his intervention) and, at the same time, other examples that show adults opting freely against their own interest. Instead, he openly defends the second argument: adults are the best experts and judges of their own (subjective) preferences. Although we will discuss in the next few paragraphs the assertion about the possibility that expert may have the objective knowledge of another person´s best interest, we will concede the point for now and agree with Farrell that each adult is the best judge of their own preferences.

This is how we could now answer the questions we posed before. I think that most of us would intuitively reject the proposal of experts/officials telling us what food to eat, what sports to practice, what form of social relationships to prefer and so. Of course, with the exceptions of exceptional situations of crisis in which we consciously seek help from experts in each subject, so that they can provide us with, in this case, personalized advice, considering our specific circumstances, beliefs and wishes. On the other hand, the pandemic has left us a clear image of the fallible, provisional, and changing nature of scientific knowledge.

I believe that the perfectionist and scientistic vision of individual life is based on a conception that responds and falls into the following errors:

a) Confusing correlation with causality: Studies on the influence of certain habit or the consumption of certain food or drink on individuals´ health show correlations and no causal links. That is, it cannot be reliably proven that this or that habit produces such a consequence but only that, given two variables, the values ​​of one vary systematically with the homonymous values ​​of the other. This coincidence may respond to an external cause to both (which produces or “causes ” both variables) or by multiple causes that are difficult to unravel at this level. This is obvious to any scientist or expert in each area, but it is forgotten when it is discussed in the public sphere, where not practicing sports “causes” obesity, salt “causes” high pressure and not wearing a face mask seems to “causes” the contagion of the coronavirus.

b) Studies always work with populations, that is, with a sample or group of individuals of a certain sex, age, physical characteristics, etc. that could have a probability of, for example, suffering certain disease. Let´s say- for the purpose of illustration- that certain group of individuals -men over 65 years have a 60% chance of having a heart attack. But this “class” or group probability does not tell us anything about each particular individual being part or not of that 60%. What if a public policy of restricting salt is being imposed on a man with low blood pressure and a very low probability of having a heart attack? Can’t this individual make the decision to consume more salt than recommended by public bodies or professional chambers at his own risk? Let´s remember all the atrocious examples that were experienced during the pandemic about relatives who have not been able to accompany terminally ill patients, penalties even of jail for people who circulated at prohibited hours and contradictory recommendations that prevented individuals from being able, with the public information available, to decide about their possibilities to work, circulate, see their relatives, etc. under threat of sanction.

c) Scientific studies and their practical conclusions are constantly changing. We have lived through this intensely in the last 20months or more of the pandemic, where what at first seemed irrefutable, months later seems shocking. Just as an example, the practically absolute prohibition -in countries as Argentina- for children to walk in the streets the first three months of quarantine. These major shifts in scientific criteria in one area can be observed (perhaps without the speed we see during the pandemic) in many other realms. Continuing with the nutritional example, we can say that the paradigms in this area seem to change drastically and quickly. Only in the last 20 or 30 years has it gone from suggesting that alcohol was bad to recommending a glass of wine a day to prevent heart disease; to try to eliminate meat in all its forms to currently attempt to eliminate all carbohydrates and sugars and to consume only proteins and fats and many more.

But, beyond all these characteristics of scientific knowledge that inform “perfectionist” public policies, we can also raise an even more fundamental point: Even if we could know, reliably and with certainty, -what science would never guarantee- how a certain habit can affect our health or what would happen if we do not met with the ideal, don´t we have any right to choose how to live our lives? When did we renounce to that right in favor of the experts of a group of professional councils or of the civil servants of a Ministry of Health? Should we forbid the individual who wants to dedicate his life to climbing the Himalayas to carry out such an endeavor because of the high risks of his life plan? And the one who practices hang gliding? Don’t these individuals know their own preferences better than anyone else?

And here are some more points added from a higher level of observation:

a) Levels of Abstraction: Why might we think that individuals choosing between options are “biased” and when individuals working as government agents in offices creating “nudges” are not biased as other individuals in their daily life? Individuals who work in the civil service or have some degree of professional or scientific specialty, don´t they suffer from the same biases and limitations described in the studies above mentioned, typical of every human being? For example, don´t they choose between theoretical or experimental options for those results presented in a more pleasant way (problem of the architecture of the election) or that confirmed more strongly their hypotheses (confirmation fallacy)?

b) Scientific theories are fallible. Also, some of the results of these experiments may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete in the future. Do we have the right to influence individual decisions based on studies that are, like any scientific theory or experiment, fallible and provisional? After all, isn’t it more worthy for the individual to pay the costs of his bad decision rather than paying the costs of a government agent’s bad decision?

c) Finally, a more philosophical point: How does chance or destiny influence on our daily decisions? Is there a case where the options are presented in a “neutral distribution” way? Let us suppose the case of an individual’s decision regarding the acquisition of medical or retirement insurances (issues that have also been very relevant during the pandemic). The individual must choose between “default options”. The options could be presented to consumers randomly or in a way decided by offerors – but without any central agent deciding-. In the latter case, the options are established by the offerors because they are trying to influence commercially on consumers´ choice and, therefore, it could be said that there is no neutral distribution even though it is not a “nudge” of the public sphere. But, on the other hand, there is a suggestion made by government agents, then the ” nudge ” is intervening in the market, albeit subtly. That is to say that private influence is being replaced by governmental influence, bringing an artificial “architecture” of the choice that did not exist before and, therefore, eliminating randomness. Here we are again facing “levels of abstraction” problem: Don´t “experts” -who propose the ” nudge”- have the same limitations as individuals that interact?

Recapitulating, during this long process we lived the last year and a half since pandemic, quarantine and all the -health, economic, political -measures taken by governments, the question about the scope of our autonomy reemerged. Standing on a platform where philosophical perfectionism and a misunderstood scientism are combined, it has gone from trying to discover patterns of behavior to prescribing ideal results and to opening the door to all kinds of measures, which establish from our right to move freely, if we can work, if we can trade, etc. And what has been more unusual, without explicit limits on the duration of such measures. I think this responds to a trend of thought that had started much earlier. But shouldn’t we take back the reins of our lives as adults? Don’t we know our interests better -or, at least, our preferences- by ourselves? If others believe they know our interests better than us, shouldn´t each of us, considering our preferences, be the best judges of how much risk we want to take? We could think that governments and expert organizations can, in good faith, publish all the information and studies produced and, likewise, could suggest, recommend, and even collaborate to follow the suggestions; but not to compel, prohibit and sanction those who are “wrong” at their own risk.

Of course, this implies taking responsibility for our actions and not demanding or claiming the governments to decide for us or to be accountable for our mistakes. If we decide to climb the Himalayas, we will have to train for many years, buy the appropriate equipment, take out the appropriate insurance, face possible injuries and if something goes wrong, even face death. Ultimately, in each election our desires, our beliefs, our projects, and our philosophical perspectives – that provides- meaning to our lives- come into play. So, we cannot ask the government or the experts to prohibit something from us (because it is risky) or, what is worse, to prohibit it from all citizens, so as not to face the dangers or costs of our eventual mistakes.

We find ourselves – by our decision – facing the paradox that we, given our limitations, cannot make personal and everyday decisions about our work, food or habits, but we can choose legitimately officials, experts or governmental agents that are going to lead us on such tasks. I propose, instead, to reassume our adulthood and start exercising our right to bring the life plan whose consequences we can assume. This, instead of taking it as natural that others decide for us in exchange of unloading on them the responsibility of our own life. Only then we will be able to claim, legitimately, the right to take our own decisions at the risk of being wrong.

The Behavioural Economics of the “Liberty & Responsibility” couple.

The marketing of Liberty is enclosed with the formula “Liberty + Responsibility.” It is some sort of “you have the right to do what you please, BUT you have to be responsible for your choices.” That is correct: the costs and profits enable rationality to our decisions. The lack of the former brings about the tragedy of the commons outcome. In a world where everyone is accountable for his choices, the ideal of liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion will be delivered by the resulting structure of rational individual decisions limiting our will.

The couple of Liberty and Responsibility is right BUT unattractive. First of all, the formula is not actually “Liberty + Responsibility,” but “Liberty as Absence of Coercion – What Responsibility Takes Away.” The latter is still right: Responsibility transforms negative liberty as “absence of coercion” into “absence of arbitrary coercion.” The problem remains a matter of marketing of ideas.

David Hume is a strong candidate for the title of “First Behavioural Economist,” since he had stated that it is more unpleasant for a man to have the unfulfilled promise of a good than not having neither the good nor the promise of it. The latter might be a desire, while the former is experienced as a dispossession. The couple “Liberty – Responsibility” dishes out the same kind of deception.

It is like someone who tells to you: “do what you want, enjoy 150% of Liberty”; and suddenly, he warns you: “but wait! You know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you are 150% free, someone will be 50% your slave. Give that illegitimate 50% of freedom back!” And he will be -again- right: being responsible makes everybody 100% free. Right – albeit disappointing.

Perhaps we should restate the formula the other way around: “Being 100% responsible for your choices gives you the right to claim 100% of your freedom.” Only a few will be interested in being more than 100% responsible for anything. But if it happens that someone is expected to deal alone with his own needs, at least he will be entitled to claim the right to his full autonomy.

The formula of “Responsibility + Liberty” is associated with the evolutionist notion of liberties, which means rights to be conquered, one by one. Being responsible and then free means that Liberty is not an unearned income to be neutrally taxed. It is not a “state of nature” to give in exchange for civilization, but a project to grow, a goal, a raison d’etre.

Putting first Responsibility and then Liberty determines a curious outcome: you are consciously free to choose the amount of freedom you are really willing to enjoy. Markets and hierarchies are, then, not antagonistic terms, but structures of cooperation freely consented. Moreover, what we trade are not goods, not even rights on goods, but parcels of our sphere of autonomy.

Where is the line between sympathy and paternalism?

In higher-ed news two types of terrifying stories come up pretty frequently: free speech stories, and Title IX stories. You’d think these stories would only be relevant to academics and students, but they’re not. These issues are certainly very important for those of us who hang out in ivory towers. But those towers shape the debate–and unquestioned assumptions–that determine real world policy in board rooms and capitols. This is especially true in a world where a bachelor’s degree is the new GED.

The free speech stories have gotten boring because they all take the following form: group A doesn’t want to let group B talk about opinion b so they act like a bunch of jackasses. Usually this takes place at a school for rich kids. Usually those kids are majoring in something that will give them no marketable skills.

The Title IX stories are Kafkaesque tales where a well-intentioned policy (create a system to protect people in colleges from sexism and sexual aggression) turns into a kangaroo court that allows terrible people to ruin other people’s lives. (I hasten to add, I’m sure Title IX offices do plenty of legitimately great work.)

A great article in the Chronicle gives an inside look at one of these tribunals. For the most part it’s chilling. Peter Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault, but the claims weren’t terribly credible. As far as I can tell (based only on this article) he did some things that should raise some eyebrows, but nothing genuinely against any rules. Nonetheless, the accusations were a potential PR and liability problem for the school so he had to go, regardless of justice.

The glimmer of hope comes with the testimony of Jessica Wilson. She managed to shake them out of their foregone conclusion and got them to consider that women above the age of consent can be active participants in their own lives instead of victims waiting to happen. Yes, bad things happen to women, but that’s not enough to jump to the conclusion that all women are victims and all men are aggressors.

The big question at the root of these types of stories is how much responsibility we ought to take for our lives.

Free speech: Should I be held responsible for saying insensitive (or unpatriotic) things? Who would enforce that obligations? Should I be held responsible for dealing with the insensitive things other people might say? Or should I even be allowed to hear what other people might say because I can’t take responsibility for evaluating it “critically” and coming to the right conclusion.

Title IX: Should women be responsible for their own protection, or is that akin to blaming the victim? We’ve gone from trying to create an environment where everyone can contribute to taking away agency. In doing so we’ve also created a powerful mechanism that can be abused. This is bad because of the harm it does to the falsely accused, but it also has the potential to delegitimize the claims of genuine victims and fractures society. But our forebears weren’t exactly saints when it came to treating each other justly.

Where is the line between helping a group and infantilizing them?

At either end of a spectrum I imagine caricature versions of a teenage libertarian (“your problems are your own, suck it up while I shout dumb things at you”) and a social justice warrior (“it’s everyone else’s fault! Let’s occupy!”). Let’s call those end points Atomistic Responsibility and Social Responsibility. More sarcastically, we could call them Robot and Common Pool Responsibility. Nobody is actually at these extreme ends (I hope), but some people get close.

Either one seems ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to that view, but both have a kernel of truth. Fair or not, you have to take responsibility for your life. But we’re all indelibly shaped by our environment.

Schools have historically adopted a policy towards the atomistic end, but have been trending in the other direction. I don’t think this is universally bad, but I think those values cannot properly coexist within a single organization.

We can imagine some hypothetical proper point on the Responsibility Spectrum, but without a way to objectively measure virtue, the position of that point–the line between sympathy and paternalism–its location is an open question. We need debate to better position and re-position that line. I would argue that Western societies have been doing a pretty good job of moving that line in the right direction over the last 100 years (although I disagree with many of the ways our predecessors have chosen to enforce that line).

But here’s the thing: we can’t move in the right direction without getting real-time feedback from our environments. Without variation in the data, we can’t draw any conclusions. What we need more than a proper split of responsibility, is a range of possibilities being constantly tinkered with and explored.

We need a diversity of approaches. This is why freedom of speech and freedom of association are so essential. In order to get this diversity, we need federalism and polycentricity–stop trying to impose order from the top down on a grand scale (“think globally, act locally“), and let order be created from the bottom up. Let our organizations–businesses, churches, civic associations, local governments and special districts–adapt to their circumstances and the wishes of their stakeholders.

Benefiting from this diversity requires open minds and epistemic humility. We stand on the shore of a vast mysterious ocean. We’ve waded a short distance into the water and learned a lot, but there’s infinitely more to learn!

(Sidenote: Looking for that Carl Sagan quote I came across this gem:

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

That about sums up my approach to discussing these sorts of issues. We’d all do better to occasionally give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and see what we can learn from them. Being a purist is a great way to structure your thought, but empathy for our opponents is how we make our theories strong.

Around the Web

  1. A university in Malaysia has awarded an economics doctorate to North Korea’s communist dictator
  2. Ian Bremmer asks, in the pages of the National Interest, if China is in the middle of a big bubble
  3. The Diffusion of Responsibility: a short piece on government employees, the rest of us, and some implications of the drug war
  4. How laissez-faire made Sweden rich by Johan Norberg
  5. Why do banks keep going bankrupt? Kirby Cundiff answers this question in the pages of the Freeman
  6. Mud People and Super Farmers: Creatively adapting to the lack of land rights in Africa