A New Year’s Resolution for Statocrats
By Pierre Lemieux
“Statocrats” is an old French word (statocrate) recycled by Bertrand de Jouvenel and meaning “a man who derives his authority only from the position he holds and the office he performs in the service of the state” (On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, 1945 for the original French edition). I extend the term to encompass the Prince’s academic or quasi-academic advisors who partly or totally depend on the state for their incomes. (I am not implying that all academic advisors or even all government employees are the Prince’s minions.) I have a New Year’s resolution to recommend to statocrats.
In general, a New Year’s resolution is a commitment device: it helps one keep one’s promise to oneself by publicizing or at least clearly expressing a goal to be reached. If you want to quit smoking or stop drinking wine (or stop whining–pardon the New Year’s pun), a New Year’s resolution can help. But such a resolution won’t have much effect if self-control only works at the time the (reasonable) resolution is made.
I thought about this resolution for statocrats when re-reading the remarkable article published in 2014 by a group of self-described “prominent economists” (it’s really in the text of the article and you can read by clicking the link): Frank Chaloupka et al. “An Evaluation of the FDA’s Analysis of the Costs and Benefits of the Graphic Warning Label Regulation,” Tobacco Control 24). The article is remarkable in the sense that its nine economist authors, some of whom are prominent, push behavioral economics at its limit. They argue that, in the case of smoking, ordinary individuals lack the self-control necessary to act in a way to maximize their real utility. Consequently, government must control addicted smokers and force them to do what’s good for them, presumably with the assistance of consulting economists and public-health busybodies.
Public-health researchers and activists and recently some economists seem addicted to the addiction versus self-control gospel. In reality, life is a long addiction, that is, a long series of instances of doing what one likes to do given one’s past experience of doing the same. This understanding of addiction is quite close Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy’s theory of rational addiction, explained in their famous 1988 article, “A Theory of Rational Addiction,” Journal of Political Economy 96(4).
Self-control is useful if only to manage addictions in a way to maximize utility. Some addictions interfere with other things including other addictions. For example, if you drink too much, you may end up beating up your neighbor and going to prison, where there is no alcohol and few other addictive pleasures. A large part of practical learning in life consists in developing self-control and in overcoming the many cognitive biases that psychologists and behavioral economists have isolated.
Behavioral economics can also be misused, as seen in in the prominent economists’ article. On the general topic, I strongly recommend the recent article of Dwight Lee and J.R. Clark, “Can Behavioral Economists Improve Economic Rationality?” Public Choice 174 (2018): 23-40. In a recent post, my co-blogger Scott Sumner also exposed a pedagogical trap of behavioral economics.
Self-control is even more important for the controllers than for the controlled. Controllers and their advisers should improve their self-control and resist the elitist temptation to dictate to the “Deplorables” how to live their lives: this is the New Year’s resolution I would recommend to statocrats.
Even if they follow my advice and adopt this resolution, the more difficult will be to implement it. Self-control is necessary to improve self-control. They might not have enough self-control to keep their commitment. They may lack full information about tyranny and its danger. They may be addicted to government power. Their cognitive biases may lead them astray. In brief, they might be as subject to information and cognitive problems as the ordinary people they claim to save from those problems.
A good New Year’s resolution by statocrats would not be sufficient. In the classical-liberal tradition, the political system should not rely on individual virtue and self-control by the statocrats. It should be, to all extent possible, impervious to tyrannical actions. Its powers should be severely limited. Let’s wish that, at the minimum, these powers won’t be expanded in 2019.