Long Form Scholarship Contest: 1st Place
Congratulations to Josh Grundleger, a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for submitting the 1st place entry in our long form scholarship contest. You can read his full entry below.
An Old Threat in a New Garb
The New Behaviorists: A Response
In 1935 the Supreme Court thwarted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plans for a corporatist America by unanimously declaring the National Recovery Administration (NRA) illegal. FDR’s original vision, embodied in the NRA and a number of other federal programs, was of a society and an economy coordinated at the center. In a style that for many was reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s fascism, Roosevelt believed that planning by a select few elites was necessary for the success of America. However, with the Supreme Court’s decision Roosevelt’s desires for a corporatist America were shattered.
Nonetheless, far from negating his mission, the ruling spurred Roosevelt in a new direction. Abandoning the pseudo-fascist policies of his early administration, Roosevelt shifted to a novel approach – Keynesian macroeconomic management. Keynesian policies operated at more of an arms-length than the price and wage controls inherent in corporatism. Rather than attempting to influence microeconomic decisions at the firm-level, Keynesian economics attempted to design the ideal state through macroeconomic control of fiscal and monetary policy. However, while somewhat more limited in scope than FDR’s earlier programs, these newer policies had the same goal – to increase the power and influence of the government, particularly in the management of the economy.
While clearly more of a blunt instrument than corporatism, FDR’s Keynesianism was nevertheless mired in the same fundamental dogma – society and the economy were best ruled from the top. Under these principles, experts and scholars unwaveringly knew what was best for the country and, given such expertise, had the self-proclaimed moral imperative to implement their plans for the good of all. Individual freedom was relegated to a place where it could only operate within the constraints of the plan, its value as a guiding principle minimized or outright dismissed.
This ideology of centralized elite-run planning has since remained a staple of the American landscape. It has often changed its guise, appearing in new forms as popular sentiment has swayed for or against specific policies, yet its fundamentals have rarely altered. In recent years, as Christine Rosen discusses in The New Behaviorists, this ideology has recast itself as a new instrument in the toolbox of those who favor greater government control. Its newest camouflage is behavioral science.
In her essay, Rosen argues that behavioral science poses a new threat to freedom. She assiduously outlines the many ways in which behaviorists use their expert knowledge, through the power of the government, to prod individuals to choose actions deemed correct. In her opinion, this velvet glove approach is hubristic and extremely threatening to freedom. She contends that “the new behaviorism isn’t interested in protecting people’s freedom to choose; on the contrary, its core principle is the idea that only by allowing an expert elite to limit choice can individuals learn to break their bad habits.”
There is much truth in Rosen’s claim. She is correct to argue that the behaviorist program has the potential and desire to threaten individual freedom. Government micromanagement of the individual’s life is almost always intrusive for freedom. She is also accurate when firmly criticizing “the new behaviorists [for] argu[ing] that it is the system, not the individual, that must change.” Behaviorists often put undue weight on the role environment plays in influencing a person’s behavior. While the environment certainly has effects on one’s actions, the behaviorist approach often focuses on systemic explanations while absolving the individual of personal responsibility. Additionally, Rosen accurately argues that behaviorist policies are in many ways dangerously subtle. They often rely upon backhanded techniques to entice behavior, behavior that is deemed “rational” by the progenitors of these policies, but in reality may simply reflect the arbitrary social goals of certain individuals.
However, while her criticisms of the current implementation of behavioral science are quite astute, Rosen makes a profound error by confusing the real threat to freedom with its present manifestation. Fundamentally, Rosen’s discussion of behavioral science does not elucidate a new threat to freedom, but a quite old threat, cloaked in a new garb. The true threat is the immemorial impulse, as displayed by Roosevelt’s early policies, of controlling and planning from the center. Like Roosevelt’s corporatism, the new behaviorists aim to use supposed expert knowledge, through the coercive mechanism of government, to manage the specifics of the economy and society. While the precise tools may differ in form, the goals of their implementation and their threats to freedom remain the same.
But why must one care whether this threat is old or new? Is this seemingly insignificant distinction really relevant? Does it matter where the impetus for the marriage between behaviorists and government comes from? After all, if there is agreement that such a union is harmful for individual liberty, why tussle over its roots?
The truth is that understanding the source of this threat is the key to successfully thwarting it. One must separate the deeper underlying motivations from the often shifting, public presentations of such a threatening doctrine. To fail at this is akin to a doctor prescribing salves to clear up a symptom without digging deep enough to understand the roots of the ailment. By mislabeling behavioral science as a new threat, advocates for freedom are faced with at least two severe problems. First, this can lead to misguided, if not ineffectual, responses. Second, it can lead to a rejection of some very positive and useful aspects of behavioral science.
As has been argued, the timeless threat of central control and planning has resiliently changed form over the decades of American history. With each new form comes a renewed attack on individual freedom. And while the supporters of freedom have managed to push back on the forces of tyranny, they have only managed to temper the underlying threat, even while destroying a succession of its manifestations. Absolutism, fascism, communism, corporatism, and others were all fortunately stopped; however, with each rollback the desire of some individuals to control others has fruitfully shifted form.
By failing to see today’s coercive implementation of behavioral science as the newest extension of this ancient phenomenon, proponents of freedom run the risk of fighting the wrong battle. If the crosshairs are aimed, not at the impulse to control other’s lives, but at a relatively new science that has been adulterated to serve the forces of tyranny, partisans of liberty will find themselves unable to defeat their enemy. Behavioral science is not intrinsically a threat, but has been roped into serving as a disguise for paternalistic policies where older costumes failed.
At best, an attack on behavioral science can lead to a short-run win, where its ideas are silenced, while the underlying hazard is left simply to find a new form. In time, a successful assault on behaviorist-inspired policies will only yield a new science or philosophy to replace the rejected model. Yet, the deep-seated desire by some to control others will remain. Stopping behavioral science will not halt the threat to freedom.
Consequently, supporters of freedom err when they allow this to be a fight over policy, not ideology. By focusing on the use of behavioral science in certain policies, the debate swings to unwinnable terrain. Rather than discussing whether it is appropriate for the government to coerce others, the argument can become muddled with other irrelevant issues. For instance, the accuracy of specific analyses or scientific experiments can devolve into contentious political debates. This can put those who defend freedom at odds with reputable scholars and their rigorously analyzed work. However, this need not be a source of contention – the science could be right and it still might be inappropriate for it to serve as the basis for government action.
The point is that the merits of particular research are largely irrelevant before a society determines its first principles. A researcher may be correct that certain behavior, say consuming junk food, will change if the incentives are altered, for instance, through consumption taxes. However, this conclusion does not address whether it is proper for the government to be deciding what the “right” consumption level of junk food is. As most defenders of liberty recognize, government should have a minimal, if any, role in determining individuals’ values.
By misdiagnosing behavioral science as the threat, one can become quickly mired in these useless debates. This not only can lead to a loss of credibility with those that believe in the science, but can deteriorate into a fight that only affects the margins of the issue, while allowing the fundamental threat to continue unheeded. Proponents of liberty must be clear that it is not behavioral science, per se, that is harmful, but the ideology that underpins its inappropriate use by the government. By correctly refocusing it as a battle of ideology, one will be able to astutely point to the real underlying threat and successfully make the case that, whatever form it takes, unjust coercion of the individual should not be accepted government policy.
This second problem is that by dismissing behavioral science, one runs the risk of discarding some valuable uses of the science that could reap many benefits in both the public and private sectors. Behavioral science is ultimately a tool. Like firearms, it is not the tool that is dangerous, but its potential uses. As Rosen correctly argues, the employ of behavioral science by the government is often troubling, if not blatantly threatening. However, this is not because behavioral science is intrinsically malevolent or injurious, but because proponents of elitist control and planning have decided to use it to achieve their social agendas.
While it is clear that harm can come from its use as a coercive tool in the hands of the state, this does not warrant a dismissal of the entire science. Such rash action – tossing out the metaphorical baby with its bathwater – can severely handicap many areas that could gain from the insights the science has to offer.
Many of these benefits come from behavioral science’s astute understanding of human nature. Primarily, the observation, derived from both psychology and economics, that man’s behavior is rooted in his self-interest and that he will thus respond to environmental stimuli, has profound implications for a myriad of applications. This intuition into human nature enables individuals and organizations to structure incentives in ways to achieve optimal results.
As Rosen points out, many of these studies have led to highly beneficial real world applications. Whether in marketing or childrearing, behavioral science has contributed, sometimes without controversy, to the betterment of the human condition. Private firms have successfully utilized techniques derived from behavioral science to motivate their employees or promote their products. For instance, Rosen highlights the well-known effects of automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans, which generate significant benefits for employees.
However, the advantages of behavioral science need not be limited to the private sector. Its lessons can be efficaciously applied by the government in numerous instances in a manner that is unthreatening to freedom and better for the efficiency of the government. Three noteworthy examples can be used to illuminate the beneficial application of this science in the public sector: the welfare state, government employee management, and international relations.
First, behavioral science can contribute much to the welfare state. As critics of the welfare state are quick and correct to point out, there are often many skewed incentives within the numerous federal- and state-run programs. Behavioral science can be used to shed light on these inefficiencies, allowing programs to be revamped in ways that will not only make them more effective but also more affordable. For instance, unemployment benefits can be provided within a framework that properly provides for those that need immediate assistance, while not destroying the incentives to quickly return to the productive workforce. Such a use of this science would serve as a huge boon to a society that has deemed the welfare state necessary, but also consistently faces tension over its implementation.
Likewise, behavioral science can be useful in managing the vast number of government employees. As many managers in the private sector have learned, the right incentive structures can yield optimal results from one’s employees. These same lessons should be employed to make the organs of government operate in more efficient and productive fashions. Such tools can be employed throughout the government – from the armed services to the post office. For example, behavioral science can reveal ways to successfully manage an increasingly skilled and competent military. Not only will this arguably reduce the burden on the taxpayer, but it will ensure that the government can do more with less.
Finally, behavioral science can be readily employed in international relations. The United States frequently attempts to persuade both friend and foe to pursue certain policies. With the right array of carrots and sticks, American foreign policy would be able to more successfully influence foreign nations. For instance, lessons from behavioral science can facilitate the United States’ ability to persuade dictators to make drastically needed democratic reforms. Such uses will greatly augment America’s soft-power tools, allowing the United States to design a foreign policy that is less threatening to other nations and less costly in both fiscal and political terms.
However, these benefits will be precluded if the entire science is attacked as anti-freedom. Before stalwarts of freedom excoriate this new science, they must consider whether it is the science or its use that is problematic. As argued, it is not the science that is the threat – science is a mere tool. The problem arises when individuals attempt to cloak their values under the guise of science, using science to justify the imposition of their values on others. Science can solely determine how things interact, not what is the right interaction to be had. When discussion of “right” or “wrong” occurs, whether electric cars should be purchased or junk food should be eaten, one has moved from the realm of science to that of values. The problem thus rests on the conflation of the two – science and values. Government, as any lover of freedom believes, should not be in the business of determining values for individuals. But defenders of freedom should be careful not to diminish the value of a tool, just because some decide to misuse it.
Ultimately, Rosen is right to highlight the growing threat, but wrong in her diagnosis. Behavioral science is only a threat insofar as it is abused by the government to further a goal of central control. This is an old threat to freedom, a threat that has repeatedly changed its form but never its challenge to liberty. It follows in the footsteps of older policy packages, from Roosevelt’s corporatism to Keynesian economic management. Those that wish to counter this threat must attack the ideology of centralized planning directly, avoiding attacks on a science that may have many beneficial uses and instead target the inappropriate use of this tool by the government.
“National Recovery Administration (NRA).” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/405302/National-Recovery-Administration>.
See Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism: 1914–45 (Routledge: Abingdon, UK, 2005) and Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change (Broadway Books: United States, 2009).
It is true that some behaviorists err by placing undue weight on the environment or external stimuli, ignoring the fact that each individual interprets the world through his own unique internal lens (which is of course based on his own past experiences, biology, and cognitive processes). Nevertheless, behaviorists are correct in outlining manners in which individuals interact with their environment.