The Pervasive Role of Priors: Part One
Thanks to Larry for inviting me to guest-blog. It’s every academic’s dream, I think, to have a built-in audience for her thoughts. And given the caliber of this blog and the readership it attracts, I could scarcely have a better one.
One subject I’ll be blogging on is my general view that people’s prior beliefs and other aspects of how they view and take in the world explain a huge amount, much more than is usually acknowledged. They (people’s priors) help explain why there are so many debates that never get anywhere. Both sides might have terrific arguments, yet nobody is persuaded.
And people keep on making the same sorts of arguments, even knowing this. Sometimes they wonder why more people aren’t persuaded. It’s a bit like the old joke about the person who goes to a foreign country and doesn’t know the language, so he tries to communicate in his own language and, when he’s not understood, he just tries again, repeating what he said . . . but louder.
I recently went to a very interesting colloquium co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the Liberty Fund on Behavioral Law and Economics. One big issue discussed was the relationship between behavioral law and economics and law, including most importantly paternalistic justifications for law that behavioral l & e might provide. Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban sales of large sizes of soda was much on people’s minds.
One thing I very much wanted to get out of the discussion was an understanding of the other participants’ priors as well as my own. Here are some initial thoughts.
First, people differ enormously as to how much they mind being told what to do. For instance, some people dream of being their own bosses, whereas others (me and my family) would consider being our own bosses a nightmare. Some people are particularly bothered by government telling them what to do; some people don’t think government telling them what to do is so bad. Of course it matters enormously what they are being told to do, although not in a simple linear way.
We can consider two different types of reasons. One is that the thing you’re being asked to do is onerous- you think you’d experience doing it as a lot of trouble, or it’s something you really don’t want to do. That one might be somewhat linear—the more trouble you have to take, the more you mind. But often, one bristles based on what one would articulate as ‘principle’ – who is the government to tell me I have to get my cat a rabies shot when she’s never going outside?
Who is the government to make it harder for me to get the gun that I want to have to feel my family is safe, and with which I might save their lives? Who is the government to tell me and my neighbors in a building that has “historical” designation that we can only make changes the government approves?
And one might be influenced by one’s underlying views and values about how well-intentioned government is generally, and how important not being told what to do is. And of course government’s stated rationale- is it supposedly just for my own good, or for society’s, or for some subset of society’s….?
People at the colloquium disagreed as to whether government thinks paternalistic rationales are more palatable than ones based on externalities. I will have more to say on this—I will be continuing this thread in later posts.