Kahneman on the price of freedom


Jason Collins


February 28, 2012

From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Much is therefore at stake in the debate between the Chicago school and the behavioral economists, who reject the extreme form of the rational-agent model. Freedom is not a contested value; all the participants in the debate are in favor of it. But life is more complex for behavioral economists than for true believers in human rationality. No behavioral economist favors a state that will force its citizens to eat a balanced diet and to watch only television programs that are good for the soul. For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by a society that feels obligated to help them. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes therefore presents a dilemma for behavioral economists. The economists of the Chicago school do not face that problem, because rational agents do not make mistakes. For adherents of this school, freedom is free of charge.

Kahneman’s comment could also be applied to the belief that markets will always deliver an optimal outcome. Obviously, there are further layers of debate beyond the basic question of whether people are rational or markets fail. Kahneman is only addressing the first stage of libertarian denial.