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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dumb Dvorsky TechBroSplains "Soft Paternalism"

People who make arguments, formulate policies, design material goods and shape environments do so in ways that try to change conduct, circumvent harm, and incentivize good behavior. Everybody knows this, and everybody has always known this. Sometimes arguments, policies, designs yield unintended consequences that make us think twice about our arguments, policies, and designs, but everybody also knows this and has always known this also, though new examples still take us by surprise and provoke pretty interesting discussions of the specifics.

In a recent "Explainer" article published at io9 to explain things, Robot Cultist George Dvorsky doesn't engage in any depth with these sorts of interesting specificities (although he does briefly mention somebody who painted flies on the back of urinals to make guys who like to piss on flies a little less likely to piss all over the floor, which may or may not count as such engagement by your lights), but instead prefers to ponder "philosophically" the question whether a person who is influenced by incentives is really free or is being subjected to a form of coercion. Similarly, one might say, some dumb straight white guys in suburbia who smoke pot in high school for the first time might ponder "philosophically" the question whether reality is really real, man, also thinking at the time (and perhaps for some time later) that this too is a deeply interesting discussion. Probably it is better to be gentle with George as he ponders so very publicly all these very interesting and original questions that have occurred to him in this special article of his.

In any case, many readers of Dvorsky's "Explainer" may not manage to arrive at these curiosities at all, stymied from the beginning as they are by the already curious premise of Dvorsky piece, announced early on, that this fairly obvious notion of incentives in design and policy is to him a "futuristic concept" in some way. Similarly, some readers may simply be trying to figure out just why an article on this topic would be illustrated with a picture of a majestic extraterrestrial metropolis in which vast arcologies are bathed in golden light above which something that looks like the Death Star is hovering with alarming proximity. Oh, George!

For the purposes of his "Explainer," Dvorsky has decided that the phrase "libertarian paternalism" or "soft paternalism" (I leave the analysis of Dvorsky's apparent treatment of the terms "soft" and "libertarian" as interchangeable when yoked to "paternalism" as an exercise for the reader) is much better than the common or garden variety word for incentives, which is "incentives." Of course, the coinage of at best unnecessary at worst actively obfuscating neologisms is pretty much futurism's only reliably consistent deliverable as an enterprise, so this move by Dvorsky isn't exactly surprising as such.

More perplexing to me, for one, is the idea that a phrase like "libertarian paternalism" would be used to describe of all things the idea of creating incentives to change behavior in the context of libertarianism rather than as a phrase to describe, you know, the reactionary plutocratic paternalism that every market libertarian account ends up representing in actuality, for example. I don't know, that seems to me the more obvious usage of such a phrase. But, you know, hey. Still, this isn't the only strange thing Dvorsky says about libertarianism in this piece. He writes: "It [you know, the famous influential public discussion of soft libertarian paternalism, eg] was an effort to get economists, many of whom are political libertarians, to rethink paternalism -- which is, let's face it, a pejorative amongst libertarians." When did this effort take place, exactly, one wonders, and what was the verdict of this effort? Did market libertarians decide to stop being paternalistic assholes while I was grading papers this week? Am I supposed to think libertarians are now bandying the phrase "soft paternalism" about in their journals and conferences?

Of course they are not. This "effort" Dvorsky described hasn't happened. Dvorsky is just making shit up. I doubt many "libertarians" have read the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein which Dvorsky's so-called "Explainer" is really a loose sort of review for, and I am quite sure that even fewer will remember it. By the way, may I point out that many economists are NOT political libertarians, and that for those who like a little empirical substance in their economics, few to no economists are political libertarians. In a recent column Paul Krugman has provided a handy table to which Dvorsky might usefully make recourse before attempting his next "Explainer" in this area:

The title of Dvorsky's piece is Soft Paternalism, or the Future of Authority and Obedience. My, that's rather grand, isn't it? Again, there is really no sensible reason to pretend that making arguments or policies or designs to incentivize what one conceives of as better conduct or to circumvent what one conceives of as predictable but avoidable risks really takes us to the heart of political questions of authority or obedience. Precisely because opinions differ as to what better conduct looks like or what outcomes one should seek to incentivize or how one deploys designs in unanticipated ways, Dvorsky's title is a check his actual subsequent discussion can't begin to cash.

It is a commonplace of futurological design discourses to fantasize that ineradicably political problems might be circumvented through optimizing designs -- as when digital utopians pretend that software can code democracy indifferent to democratic organizing, as when eugenicists pretend that medicine can engineer better human lives indifferent to the lived diversity of wanted human lifeways, as when geo-engineers pretend extractive-industrial profiteering can heal a world wounded by extractive-industrial profiteering. While Dvorsky may pretend his article soothes the sensibilities of market libertarians who fear the influence of crafty design on their personal freedom (these are people, mind you, who describe as "non-coercive" by fiat any and every contractual transaction whatever the precarity, implicit threat, or unequal information that duress its terms), I would propose that it is in fact the utterly libertopian fantasy of an eventual technocratic circumvention -- through the workings of invisible and irresistible elite designs -- of the democratic stakeholder politics of compromise, reconciliation, and reform that is exposed as the real wish-fulfillment fantasy at the root of this odd discussion, announced by Dvorsky's curiously hyperbolic but no doubt, to some, tantalizing title. Libertarian Paternalism as "The Future" of Authority and Obedience? In whose dreams?


erickingsley said...

"Of course, the coinage of at best unnecessary at worst actively obfuscating neologisms is pretty much futurism's only reliably consistent deliverable as an enterprise, so this move by Dvorsky isn't exactly surprising as such."

He can add this one to the list:

Dvorsky claims to have coined the following neologisms:

Astrosociobiology, the speculative scientific study of extraterrestrial civilizations and their possible social characteristics and developmental tendencies.

Postgenderism, a social philosophy which seeks the voluntary elimination of gender in the human species through the application of advanced biotechnology and assisted reproductive technologies.

Techlepathy, neurotechnologically-assisted telepathy.


Dale Carrico said...

We were like cavemen grubbing in caves before Dvorsky gifted us with "techlepathy." Quite apart from how funny it is that these are words nobody actually uses mostly about things that are totally made up bullshit, which is even worse than the more usual futurological practice of coming up with neologisms nobody uses to describe things that already have perfectly good words to describe them and displace well established non-futurological disciplines and discourses devoted to their serious study -- I have a funny feeling Dvorsky didn't even really coin these coinages he's claiming. I mean, post-gender -- even setting aside how facile and clueless it is in his accounting of it -- a Dvorsky coinage for real? Please.