Calculus Of Libertarian Paternalism

Max Ernst

German artist Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) incorporated a lot of sophisticated mathematical ideas into his works. Indeed, many Surrealists and Dadaists of the Anti-Tradition had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and represented mathematics in a variety of astounding ways.

The 1942 picture, “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly” shows a Young man observing a fly, through Euclidean triangle eyes. The fly executes a complex flight path leaving a trace behind it. That trace criss-crossing itself creates a large number of Non-Euclidian triangles. Quite literally, the Young Man is looking at a world with eyes that are utterly different to the reality of the World.

In mathematics, there are broadly three kinds of triangles: Hyperbolic, Euclidean, Elliptic. They each have three sides meeting at three corner angles and those features make them into triangles. An elliptic and hyperbolic triangle will not have corner angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees. Where anybody supposes that all triangles can only have angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees their calculations will be wrong for two types of triangles. Seeing the world through Euclidean Eyes is much the same as seeing the world through an ideological lense. Especially if the World has a different geometry. Looking at the Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly illustrates all three kinds of triangles and that gives resonance to the idea that the Young Man is intrigued. Anybody would be intrigued at the prospect that the World has hidden depths.

The assumption that all triangles are the same is wrong; but, not something that overly worries people. For enough practical situations, the Euclidean Triangle is acceptable. Good enough for Government Work. It seems obvious and has an intuitive appeal. People see triangles as having straight edges and one hundred and eighty degrees of angles. It makes sense. It is a default pattern of thought. It is what nudge theorists call choice architecture. No matter what you choose your choice will be determined by the assumption that the angles will always add up to one hundred and eighty degrees and that lines are always straight. It is the kind of inflexible thinking that Politicians of all Parties excel at: straight talking, clear thinking, up front. Sadly, the truth is the inability to address the variety in the world makes those politicians inflexible, authoritarian, and even counter-productive.

The inability to accept that, even if you do not know exactly how they work, there are Non-Euclidian triangles is something that prevents living in a world of surprises. Which is not to say that every surprise abolishes all that you know. This is a phenomenon that politicians of a certain sort use repeatedly. Mental gymnastics that present them as being flexible, dynamic, innovative where, in fact, they are inflexible, dull authoritarians. Nowhere is this more useful than in Paternalism.

Paternalism, in essence, tells the world that there is on kind of triangle. For enough practical situations, we can assume that Euclidean Triangles are the only Triangles. These situations do not include the sophisticated situation where there is rapid change and the world enters uncharted territory. Paternalism is not good at uncharted territory.

Paternalism is a political idea of limiting liberty or autonomy in a manner intended to promote the good of a person or group. That limitation of behaviour might be against or regardless of the will of a person. The Paternalist expresses an attitude of superiority: this is the correct way to do things. As a political idea, Paternalism has been unfashionable since the end of the Second World War. There is a small step from table manners to total war.

Telling people, especially people who are increasingly educated, that there is only one kind of triangle is nonsense. Paternalists classify themselves as soft or hard, pure or impure, moral or welfare; and, since the advent of nudge theory these have all been wrapped up into the notion of Libertarian Paternalism. Broadly Libertarian Paternalism is Paternalism where the subject of the Paternalism is influenced in their choices in a way that will make them better off, as judged by themselves. Libertarian Paternalism is about getting the whole world to buy into the notion that there is one, and only one, kind of triangle.

Which makes those who do not accept the nudge, metaphorically, into the wrong kind of triangle. Given there are three general kinds of geometry – Euclidean, Hyperbolic, and Elliptical – there is a two in three probability that a randomly selected triangle is the wrong kind of triangle. Which has a curiously powerful historical resonance for some people. Judging that a nudge is wrong for me places those with judgement in conflict with the Paternalist and the inevitable hardening of whatever powers the Paternalist possesses takes place. Libertarian Paternalism cannot help but become Authoritarian. Paternalism trumping Libertarianism for a very simple reason: Paternalists propose rule escalations and either the Libertarian accepts the escalation or the Paternalist escalates the coercion. There is no real free choice.

The modern paternalism has branded itself as nudge as if there was something harmless about it. In reality nudge relies on cognitive biases. There are around one hundred cognitive biases that have been identified by psychologists. These are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement in other words: ways in which we assume we know what kind of triangle we are looking at. These cognitive biases result in fairly predictable outcomes. Nudge Theorists spend a lot of time designing decisions for Citizens to make around these cognitive biases which result in decisions that are not really free choices and may not even be rational. Indeed there is often a payoff for the Paternalist in having an irrational choice: the Citizen has made a choice and has no insight into why. Which ensures the Paternalist can narrate social reality simply by saying, “this is why you chose that”.

The list of cognitive biases is long and they are effective means to nudging people into taking the right decision. So, for example, the Default Effect is where, given a choice between several options, the tendency to favour the default one. This is frequently seen in computer systems where, for example, the default language is US-EN and needs to be changed. The subtle impact of this, for English Language Speakers, is that not changing the default US-EN to GB-EN, for example, results in software that is understandable but drives language use towards American semantics.

Then there is the Framing Effect: drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented. So, for example, using US-EN and GB-EN rather than American English and British English helps to drive the conclusion that these are, somehow, dialects of the same language with equal linguistic value, rather than diverging languages in a struggle for existence. The list of cognitive biases is a list of ways to influence people: framing software use in US-EN has the subtle effect of making software be perceived as American, even though America is not the biggest writer of code in the world.

Cognitive biases are about getting things done: decisions made. They are not about rational decision making but about getting things done. In the word of the Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they are about bullshit. The use of cognitive biases is not about saying something true or false but about getting things done. It is about Action. The principle of action replacing though has been central to the development of Totalitarianism for at least a century.

The danger of Paternalism is that it ceases being benevolent and becomes Total. In the practices of Nudge there is embodied a subtle yet obvious flaw: those doing the Nudging are not immune to the cognitive biases they use. They see the entire world as Euclidean Triangles – which, in a world with Elliptical and Hyperbolic triangles, amounts to confirmation bias. Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Being in positions of power, those who Nudge are using Confirmation Bias to inform their creation of a Framing Effect and a Default Effect. The outcome is that policies are not evidence based, rational and democratic but prejudice based, irrational and paternalistic.

When Sunstein and Thaler proposed that Libertarian Paternalism was a good idea, they were doing so from a peculiar position of having access to legal, contract and finance skills. Libertarian Paternalism would, it seem, work in a community that had replaced society with enforceable contracts.

This kind of notion seeps into the way the Department for Work and Pensions treat Claimants. The Unemployed become Job Seekers thus taking advantage of the cognitive bias of focusing; and, the Job Seeker has a Job Seekers Agreement which, it turns out, is an actual contract for which the Claimant must fulfil all conditions, however arbitrary. This is where we begin to see how Nudge is also nudging the Department for Work and Pensions.

Job Seekers are viewed as being lumps of labour that can be switched in and out of the Economy mechanistically. This amounts to the cognitive bias of functional fixedness. Which separates the Claimant from any access to legal, contractual or finance resources implicit in the Sunstein and Thaler presentation of Nudge Theory. Which reduces the interaction between the Department and the Claimant to a Paternalistic relationship. Indeed, the nature of that relationship is reinforced by the elimination of legal aid: there is no recourse to effective contract drafting for the Claimant and the whole relationship is determined by who has the deepest pockets.

The Department of Work and Pensions is the clearest example of how Nudge becomes Authoritarianism. The elements that make Nudge workable have all been eliminated. There is no possibility of each Claimant negotiating a realistic Job Seekers Agreement and so the agreement will be dictated, to save time if nothing else. This highlights one of the cognitive biases of the Department: illicit transference – the notion that what is true of one claimant is true of all Claimants or what is true of Claimants collectively is also true of Claimants individually.

Because the Department of Work and Pensions has abandoned the evidence based work in favour of Observer-expectancy “Randomised Control Trials” – there is a veneer of scientific respectability. Yet, the Randomised Control Trials do not actually stand up to scrutiny. Which is evidenced by the consequent Departmental use of statistics. The Department of Work and Pensions has a poor reputation for statistics – being disciplined by the National Audit Office on several occasions – which highlights the Department’s predilection for cognitive biases such as Zero risk bias, Unit Bias, Stereotyping, and Status Quo Bias.

The clear outcome is that, once the capacity for all parties to a nudge to act in a libertarian fashion is removed, all that is left is Paternalism. It is a choice. A choice made in a choice architecture: the choice is transferred from the Claimant or the Citizen to the Department or the Government. Nudge is little more than the choice architecture of authoritarianism. This is no more evident than in the choice of Austerity.

The outcome of Austerity has been the rise of social murder – the killing of reasonably well defined groups such as Claimants – often at considerable cost, in order to sustain a cognitive bias. The multiple cognitive biases, of the Tories, used to support the claim that Markets solve everything are little more than the denial that there is more than one kind of triangle. Independent observers – such as UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston – have pointed out that Austerity is a choice that could be reversed ‘overnight’ for little cost. It is a choice. Made within a choice architecture created by Authoritarians.

The social murder carried out since 2010 is in the process of transforming society. Obedience is being presented as the default choice. In reality, the cognitive bias of System Justification, is driving the political, economic and social destruction of society and social murder is an acceptable outcome because “society will be reformed”.

It is the same notion that instruction to action – of taking back control – of keeping calm and carrying on – all signify. It is about remaking society in the image of some historical bubble: the cognitive biases of False Memory about some golden age, possibly in the 1940s or 1950s, where the world was somehow, magically, better. It was a world in which there was only one kind of triangle. It was also a world in which Max Ernst was fleeing totalitarians who wanted to kill him for painting the wrong kind of triangle.

Picture: “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly”, Max Ernst, 1942.

Article by Hubert Huzzah

3 thoughts on “Calculus Of Libertarian Paternalism

  1. Bring on the REPUBLIC and a long, painfully awaited opportunity to undertake a thoroughly effective, clean sweep of the machiavellian detritus of the current, hideous, established order, presenting an opportunity to write and enact a New Constitution worthy of the concept of society and fit for all human beings to co-exist and prosper in the 21st century and beyond. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

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