Long Form Scholarship Contest: 2nd Place
Congratulations to Clifford Lauchlan, a student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, for submitting the 2nd place entry in our long form scholarship contest. You can read his full entry below.
The Emperor’s New Clothes: Behaviorism and the Threat of Central Control
The notion of redefining freedom as freedom from the circumstances of environment is not new as Christine Rosen suggests in her essay “The New Behaviorists.” The assault on the meaning of freedom has been underway for at least two centuries. F.A. Hayek observed that central planners in the 18th century sought to define freedom as “release from the compulsion of the circumstances” long before “Behaviorism” entered the lexicon (77). Central planners have always maintained that they could free societies from any number of vices if given control over the social environment. It is unsurprising then that central planners would employ Behaviorism, the theory that behavior can be explained and modified through controlling the environment. They share a common aim, prediction and control. By conscripting Behaviorism central planners have adopted an attitude of scientific authority and furnished their cause with greater legitimacy. This veneer of science helps justify the continuing expansion of central power and the limiting of individual liberty.
Of course Behaviorism itself is a legitimate field of scientific inquiry, but one that has declined in both strength and influence in the academy (Graham). Behaviorism’s basic thesis is that environment alone, without reference to individuals’ internal states, determines behavior. Change the environment, change people’s behavior. One criticism of this thesis, however, is its failure to account for perception. It is not the environment per se that affects behavior, but one’s perception of the environment. A study conducted by Lyn Goff and Henry Roediger reveals how unreliable that perception can be. After repeatedly imagining a certain action as having taken place, test subjects came to believe the action had actually occurred (21, 28). Put simply, perception is fallible and can misread the environment. Indeed, there is now an enormous amount of data suggesting that internal states play a pivotal role in interpreting the environment (Graham).
These studies reveal a complexity involved in the interplay between environment and action that the thesis of Behaviorism does not account for. Consideration of individuals’ perception of their environment must at least be considered when attempting to use Behaviorism. This added complexity complicates the idea of using Behaviorism to affect the entirety of society. But central planners are not so much interested in the science of Behaviorism as much as they are in a dogma to justify their actions to an uncritical public. To consider such criticisms threatens the assumption that the activity of central planners is objective and based on science rather than the product of certain, subjective ideologies. To not criticize central planners’ claims to science is dangerous as it absolves responsibility, allowing them to argue that they are just following the data.
Despite the criticisms of Behaviorism, healthy elements of the science remain and continue to influence society (Graham). Behaviorism is still a practical and useful discipline. The understanding of environment and how it affects behavior is a powerful tool, but a powerful tool to combat specific behaviors in specific people. Rosen’s article provides many examples of it at work from child-rearing techniques to applications of behavior therapy in delinquents, prisoners, and autistic patients. But Rosen fails to distinguish any difference between Behaviorism applied within specific environments and Behaviorism applied to an entire society. Rather, she presents both as credible applications of the same science. There is a considerable difference between a therapist applying the techniques of behavior modification within a specific environment for a specific purpose and central planners using the coercive power of government to apply vast regulatory legislation. Society’s complexity precludes the systematic measurement necessary to determine the full effects of legislation that regulates the behavior of millions of people.
The scientific method assumes systematic observation, but the full impact of government regulations on individual environments can never be completely quantified. Regulations are necessary at times, but to claim that such efforts are scientific lacks credibility. The central planner not only lacks the ability to effectively adjust for the effects of her regulatory schemes, she cannot even begin to consider the full cost of implementation. Nevertheless, such charades occur all the time. During a recent Senate Committee Hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency, Kathleen Hogan, detailed the savings consumers would enjoy as a result of purchasing mandated light bulbs. And while savings to consumers would be one aspect to consider, how can she hope to calculate the full impact on manufacturers, their employees, families, and by extension the establishments they frequent, the charitable organizations they support, the volunteer opportunities their salary allows them to take part in, and so on? The idea that a regulator can walk into a senate hearing and claim certain regulations will produce a specific, quantifiable value to society is naïve and absurd. The intricate, interconnected nature of society cannot be so easily accounted for. Behaviorism simply serves as a useful cover for the work of centralizing power.
The complexity of applying Behaviorism on a national scale and the criticisms of Behaviorism itself are only marginal issues in the context of individual liberty. While it is necessary to note the simplicity and inefficiency of central planning, these criticisms do not defend against the assault on liberty. They are peripheral arguments concerned with cost and efficiency, practical concerns that do nothing to combat the underlying assumption of central planning. Consider Ms. Hogan’s testimony again. Nearly every paragraph makes reference to greater efficiency and cost savings. But these claims and the counter-argument about the impossibility of considering the true cost take for granted that the government should have the ability to regulate choice in the first place. The arsenals of both sides of this debate are adorned with arguments of cost and efficiency. The fact that the national debate surrounding regulation centers on arguments for efficiency rather than liberty testifies to liberty’s decline. All that remains is for the political class to squabble over the degree and costs of coercion.
Liberty once meant freedom from the coercion of others. It was “sovereignty of man over himself” insofar as he did not impinge on his neighbor’s same right (Jouvenal 353). Correspondingly it was also the responsibility for one’s actions or inactions and the consequences thereof. This idea has long been out of fashion and perhaps no longer even exists in American society. While Rosen identifies the threat of investing a bureaucratic elite with the reigns of social control, she ignores it by turning to the “more subtle” questions that face us today: whether we should use regulation to protect individuals from themselves and whether freedom should be redefined as freedom from unproductive behaviors. Perhaps Rosen does not feel the need to address the threat to liberty because the threat has become reality. Extensive and invasive government control is the order of the day. Her subtle questions assume that today’s central planners will direct the population to good ends. There is no basis for this assumption. The same system that can take away the liberty for the sake of “acceptable” goals can take away liberty for any number of purposes.
A majority imbuing central planners with the power to regulate society is despotism no less despotic because for the moment its goals are benign and power is administered through various departments rather than a single person. Benjamin Constant describes this kind of despotism as an “ill-considered bustle about everything; an endless multiplicity of laws; the desire to gratify the passions of the popular party…such are the vices of assemblies when they are not confined within bounds they cannot overstep” (qt in Jouvenal 324). Today, society’s willingness to empower central planners by removing the bounds of their power has prompted an explosion of regulations and increased government invasiveness. Despite eloquent election cycle speeches every election cycle on the topic of liberty, liberty is fast fading from memory. The reality is that society has already largely given up their liberty to central planners.
Given the state of society, the question that needs to be asked is how regulatory bodies determine what the ends of a good society should be. Rosen points out that the New Behaviorists believe they need to show people the correct path, and where they resist, they must be coerced by government. Ironically, she also notes that these behaviorists dismiss “value-laden” concepts such as virtue as “mushy.” The illusion that central planners are just following the dictates of science objectively and without reference to value judgments is appealing but false. It is impossible to determine the “correct path” for society and in the same breath eschew value judgments. Determining correct behavior requires value judgments. Limiting the type of foods people can eat, for example, places value on a healthy lifestyle and debases the notion that individuals should have the choice to indulge themselves.
For a population no longer jealous of their liberty, the goals of the new Behaviorists sound appealing. The promises of more energy efficient, productive, healthy, and environmentally savvy citizenry are held out as attainable goals. Handing control over to the experts seems a small price to pay. But before giving up the heritage of liberty, it would be prudent to ask why these are the celebrated ends held out to the public rather than others. The values of efficiency and productivity are likely informed by secular industrial capitalism that drives toward ever greater efficiency and central control. Similarly, our image-conscious culture celebrates perfect bodies and health consciousness, while ecology is replacing traditional morality, dictating behavior in terms of environmental impact rather than moral impact. These are some of the values of our historic moment. In their wake are older values such as localism, community, family, and the Judeo-Christian ethic. Values are not static but malleable, shaped by history and human interaction.
There is no reason to expect that the values put forth by central planners will always be so amenable to the general will. The question that should be asked is not whether the aims of central planning are laudable, but whether society is prepared to allow government regulators near total control of our environment? Values change. History reveals the shifting nature of human values and the catalog of misery it has engendered. The briefest survey of history reveals examples where the values of a majority have subjugated a minority. Consider the French Revolution and the Committee of Public Safety that jealously defended the will of the people eradicating the vestiges of aristocracy with the guillotine. Once the majority invests central planners with the mechanisms of control to coerce the population toward a given outcome, wresting that power away again will prove difficult. Liberty once ceded is not easily regained.
Given that there is no longer any acceptable moral code, no basis for value judgments other than human impulse to check the power of central control, we should be all the more ready to defend against coercive power that would impinge on individual liberty. Individual liberty offers the best protection against a central power subject to transitory and by no means necessarily benign values. Protecting individual liberty also protects those minority interests who find themselves threatened by the will of the majority.
While there will always be tension between government coercion and individual sovereignty, the de facto defense needs to be of the individual, not government sovereignty. The meaning of freedom would need to be mangled indeed to argue that freedom is protected when central planners are given the power to determine individual choice. Unfortunately, this ceding of power has already largely occurred. It is difficult to see how this state of affairs can be corrected, but we should always seek to be free citizens rather than protected subjects. Just because the goals of central planning may align with a value system does not justify ceding the freedom of personal choice.
As Rosen makes clear, the effects of Behaviorism are felt throughout our society. Unfortunately Rosen’s article fails to critically assess the use of Behaviorism at the national level. The appropriation of Behaviorism by central planners is merely a cloak for their continuing purpose of centralizing power. Central planners’ appropriation of Behaviorism manipulates the public’s faith in science, using it as a shield against criticism as they claim to objectively work out science’s ends. Arguments over cost and efficiency can help staunch the flow of regulation, but they do nothing to address the underlying assumptions that allow for extensive government control. Until the public grows frustrated with the empty rhetoric of liberty and becomes willing to defend its true meaning, the power of central control will continue to grow. This advancing despotism is the great tragedy of our age as the liberty that was once fought for is traded in for glittering, illusory promises of a utopian society.
Goff, Lyn M., and Henry L. Roediger III. “Imagination Inflation for Action Events: Repeated Imaginings Lead to Illusory Recollections.” Memory & Cognition 26 (1998): 20-33. Web. 28 March 2011.
Graham, George. ed. Edward N. Zalta. “Behaviorism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 22 Mar 2011.
Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents.Ed. Bruce Caldwell Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007. Print.
Jouvenal, Betrand. On PowerThe Natural History of Its Growth. Trans. J.F. Huntington. 1948. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993. Print.