The individual in society, pt. one zillion by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 10:46 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Commenter johnbr asks whether it’s fair to say that I “have little faith in people’s abilities to think for themselves and overcome societal/structural pressures so they can ‘do the right thing’  (in this case, eat right and exercise).”

I think there are two ways to respond to this. The first is that in many habit-forming areas of life, evidence shows that individual rational benefits-maximizing decisionmaking just doesn’t influence behavior very much. These include sexual behavior, eating behavior, exercise and smoking. And that fact is reflected in common-sense wisdom (“I just couldn’t help myself”, or basically any area where people talk about having trouble controlling or disciplining themselves). Such behavior may shift as social norms shift, but it’s unlikely to shift because individuals just decide to change. Then there’s another type of behavior: transportation or other infrastructure-determined behavior, where individual choice is only of limited relevance because the decisions about what options will be available (and how easily) are made at a collective level. If I live in LA, it’s hard to decide to commute by bike. If I live in Amsterdam, it’s hard to decide to commute by car. Neither is impossible, but the different communities have decided to build different kinds of roads and housing so the choices are skewed in opposite directions.

Note that this is crazy, because LA has fabulous weather for biking 300 days out of the year, while Amsterdam has lousy weather for biking 150 days out of the year.

But the second point is that I actually don’t know really know what johnbr means by having faith in individuals’ ability to overcome societal pressure. I mean, given the current socioeconomic incentives, people are currently acting the way they’re acting, across some distribution of behaviors described on a curve. And they’re likely to go on acting pretty much the same way, on average, unless something about the socioeconomic incentives changes. From 1980 to 2004, obesity rates among adults in the US doubled, and rates among children tripled; over 30% of Americans are currently obese. Were they choosing to become obese? Given that 58% say they want to lose weight, that seems unlikely.

So this leaves you with three options. Either you think society should take actions that will change the infrastructure and the socioeconomic incentives such that individuals’ behavior will shift to, for example, make people healthier and less obese. Or you think that individuals’ behavior is by definition optimal right now, since this is what individuals are in fact doing, and the statement “Americans are fatter than they should be” is meaningless. Or, finally, you think that while the current overall situation may not be optimal, it is individuals’ own faults if they’re in situations they don’t like, and society shouldn’t do anything to make it easier for them to get out of it. I find this a passive and morally vindictive attitude towards life. But the idea that people’s “ability to think for themselves and overcome societal pressures” presents a possible solution to large-scale, population-level problems seems to me literally incomprehensible. Individual people sometimes abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together, though even there, they almost always do so only if there are social resources to back them up. But the idea that 15% of America’s adult population could all abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together because they all made the same individual decision to do so seems to me not to reflect any of the kinds of things that ever happen in human societies. It’s like thinking that the unemployment rate could drop from 10% to 5% if Americans would just get up off their butts and find jobs.


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“Or you think that individuals’ behavior is by definition optimal right now, since this is what individuals are in fact doing, and the statement “Americans are fatter than they should be” is meaningless.”

It’s also silly if you think about it in terms of smoking: were cumulative individual choices optimal 10 years ago, or now? What about each year along the way? If you think the govt and Reiner et al should have just shut up, then do you have a problem with individual choices now (people smoke less)? You’re kind of just listless – however much leaders do or don’t effect change from the top-down, the outcome is always optimal (??)

A more stable position is to say we just shouldn’t worry about it. So there are a bunch of fat people running around, and the harm is measurable. So what? Not every measurable harm demands some wonky corrective plan from Ezra Klein. Societies shift, fads come and go, mostly without any regard to what the President or Speaker of the House or Chairman of the Fed or Oprah thinks. Let’s just let stuff like this play out and focus on, say, figuring out how to stop the next war of choice.

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I’ll give you a fourth option: The current situation may or may not be optimal, I don’t know, but it’s up to the individual, not you or me, to decide whether they want to be “healthier and less obese.” I think the real morally vindictive attitude is the one that views people as passive lumps of matter that need to be shaped into socially acceptable forms by other people who are smarter (supposedly) or know better what’s good for them.

As to your other point about urban planning, I agree that people would be healthier, or at least happier, if they lived in environments that were actually designed with people in mind, rather than cars. But I don’t share your faith in the ability of decisions made at a “collective level” to achieve this, at least not if we’re talking about a place the size of LA, or any city or major town for that matter. Real collective decisions, at the local or neighborhood level, made by the people who are going to be directly affected by them (rather than elected officials who have their own agenda), is another story.

Comment by Joe Ermigiotti

That’s not a fourth option. It’s the third option.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

True. It’s a rewording of the third option, to get rid of the notion that it amounts to blaming the person for their condition.

Comment by Joe Ermigiotti

Hi Matt,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

You don’t say it precisely, but I infer that you feel that option one is “seeking the optimal”. Which (to me) is a fine goal in life, with the caveat that because of the complexity of the interactions of 6.5 billion humans, and the ongoing advancement of technology and knowledge that it’s impossible to measure.

Now, we could stop there – you probably disagree with my caveat, or feel that by throwing out a bunch of the variables, you can optimize for the few remaining.

And philosophically I agree – by throwing out a bunch of the variables, yes, you make the optimization problem far more tractable.

The problem I have is that some of the variables you are throwing out are the ones that I think are most important! I would state them but I bet you could probably rattle them off.

The point to all of this is that I feel that the system you are trying to optimize is not well-described. And if it is not well-described, it can’t be optimized. And if the system can’t be optimized, my general attitude is to “leave it alone”. I don’t feel this is vindictive.

Having said all of that, sometimes problems are not as hard to optimize as I think they are. Some problems need to be short-circuited and addressed right away, even when the long-term consequences can’t be known.

But I don’t feel it’s mean-spirited to want a pretty compelling case to be made for “short-circuiting”. It doesn’t mean (to use Obama’s words) that I don’t want to grab a mop and help, it’s that I think we’re trying to clean up a toxic cloud of zombie-gas, and why the hell is Obama asking me to grab a mop????

Comment by johnbr

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