The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism

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The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism by Gilles Saint-Paul Princeton University Press * 2011 * 174 pages * $39.50

Reviewed by D wight R. Lee

It is clear from Saint-Paul's pages that he wants to prevent the "gradual elimination of individual freedom as 'social science' makes progress in documenting behavioral biases, measuring happiness, and [favorably] evaluating the effects of coercive policies, while information technology provides ever more efficient tools of control to the government." But he argues that trying to make the case for freedom on instrumental, or utilitarian, grounds will fail as new theories and evidence, such as those found in behavioral economics and happiness research, undermine the unitary individual assumption on which economic analysis rests. As the view of rational, utilitymaximizing behavior is undermined, it is replaced with support for paternalistic policies.

Throughout the book Saint- Paul provides examples of paternalistic policies eroding freedom. He gives little hope, however, that this paternalistic trend can be contained, much less reversed. I kept hoping to find some discussion of Public Choice to inject political realism into how paternalistic policies would actually work. Only in the book's final semi-optimistic pages is there a discussion of political agency, followed up with reasons why such arguments are "not likely to be very convincing to the paternalists." Surely true, but maybe they'd be convincing to others.

Saint-Paul recognizes that standard economics provides justification for a liberal social order where social welfare is tied closely to individual welfare, and even when markets are seen to fail, economics suggest they are best remedied by policies that minimize restrictions on freedom. Yet in terms of protecting freedom, he sees the "fundamental philosophical flaw of the economic approach [as being] that it does not value individual freedom per se." His explanation for this statement is the consequentialist approach of economics, according to which economics only cares "about the allocation of resources at the end, not about the process by which resources were allocated" (emphasis added).

This seems to me as if Saint-Paul is giving up the game as far as protecting freedom is concerned. Again quoting him, "Once the premises of consequentialism are accepted, we can only object to some government intervention on instrumental grounds. . . .This stands in contrast to principled objections, which state that the intervention violates some fundamental principle upon which society is built" (emphasis in original).

Process is important in ethical arguments, but while freedom is a consequence of markets (not necessarily defined in terms of strict laissez faire), it is also an essential ingredient in the market process. …