Judge Richard Posner thinks the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 goes overboard in trying to protect consumers from themselves. Better to treat them — us — as “consenting adults.”
The plan of the new agency reveals the influence of “behavioral economics,” which teaches that people, even when fully informed, often screw up because of various cognitive limitations. A leading behavioral economist, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wrote “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” last year with Cass Sunstein, who is President Barack Obama’s nominee for “regulatory czar.”
Mr. Thaler, whose views are taken seriously by the Obama administration, calls himself a “libertarian paternalist.” But that is an oxymoron. He is a paternalist with a velvet glove—as the agency will be. Through the use of carrot and stick, the agency will steer consumers to those financial products that it thinks best for them, whatever they naïvely think. . . .
Behavioral economists are right to point to the limitations of human cognition. But if they have the same cognitive limitations as consumers, should they be designing systems of consumer protection?
UPDATE: Richard Thaler responds here.
The premise of behavioral economics is that humans are not perfect decision-making machines. We are busy and distracted. We have fields that we know well, but are amateurs in most other domains. If our car breaks down, we go to a trained mechanic. Even the best mechanics will make some mistakes (they are human), but for most of us they still have a better chance of getting our cars to work than doing it ourselves. Even Judge Posner is human, and given the number of books he has written, he must have made a few mistakes in print. But our legal system needs judges, and one of the reasons we have a layered judicial system is so that mistakes by one judge can be corrected by others. Should we abolish our legal system because judges are known to make mistakes?
No government agency (or judge) will be error-free. The goal of the Nudge agenda sketched out in my co-authored book of that title was to create decision-making environments in which it is easier for error-prone human decision makers to choose well. The Agency proposed by the administration is a good example of this kind of thinking. Even imperfect experts can help us achieve better outcomes, just as imperfect judges can help us enforce the law fairly. Until we invent the perfect human (or computer decision-making devise), we have no good alternatives.