Is Individual Liberty Over-Rated?

One of the biggest misconceptions about post-rational behavioral research is that its effects on society are small. From the news you get the impression "behavioral economics" is all about changing the 401(k) plan from opt-in to opt-out, or informing people, via their bills, how their electricity use compares to the neighbors'. All of which is well and good (opt-out yields a much higher participation rate in the plans and the comparative-use trick gets power-hogs to dial back). This is contrary to the old "Rational Economic Man" model, but what's the big whoop about some policy nips and tucks? To see just how myopic that view is, look no further than Cass Sunstein's latest article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. What prompts the 401(k) revise and other mild-mannered "choice architecture" policies, he notes, is good evidence that people are not always the best judges of their own interests. And if you concede that point, then you have to concede that one of the foundations modern democracy—the notion that each of us is entitled to make her own choices and her own mistakes—appears to rest on … nothing.


Uh-oh. The presumption that you know how to look after yourself, that reason 21st birthdays are so special, is one of the most cherished privileges in modern society. After all, most societies restrict what children can do (and buy) because they lack the ability to make good judgements about what is in their interest. Adulthood is supposedly the period in which that handicap is gone. What's the most common way for Americans to express outrage at violations of our precious adult autonomy? By complaining that we're not children. That's why "paternalism" has a bad name and supposedly no citizen wants to live in a "nanny state." But if adults aren't that much better than kids at certain kinds of assessment, it's reasonable to start talking about paternalism without outrage—even "coercive paternalism," in which the state makes damn sure you can't make your own mistakes. This kind of tough-love nanny state is a perfectly logical consequence of modern behavioral research, argues the philosopher Sarah Conly, whose book Sunstein is reviewing in his essay. Her mild-mannered title: Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.

I haven't read the book yet, but Sunstein's respectful review merits attention on its own, for two reasons. First, it's a succinct account of how the end of "Rational Economic Man" assumptions necessarily opens the way to a profound re-think about how people live their lives, and think of their rights and obligations. Second, Sunstein's interest in the topic is far from theoretical. He spent President Obama's first term as head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews and modifies all proposed federal regulations before they go into effect. When he declares that behavioral research "is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world," he is not a writer hyping his point. He's a practitioner, embodying it.

It's hard to understate the challenge that post-rational research poses for our current social contract. The notion that we are rational about ourselves—that whenever we wish we consciously reason our way to our choices—is, after all, the basis of modern civil rights. To be enlightened, Immanuel Kant explained, one must "use one's understanding without guidance,'' and this is impossible without freedom of speech and of thought. (Hence, Kant ridiculed people who lazily used the judgment of others as a guide.) "Error of opinion may be tolerated," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "where reason is left to combat it." Then, too, if we can be rational about ourselves at will, then it follows that each of us is both the best judge and the best guardian of his/her own well-being. After all, we have the most knowledge of the subject and the most motivation to reach the right answer. And the reason we apply to that information is just as good as anyone else's.

This argument, so central to our modern notions of autonomy and equality, was brilliantly made in the middle of the 19th century by John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty. Given that I am the best judge of my own interests, Mill argued, there can be no legitimate reason to compel me to do something "for my own good." Of course, Mill wrote, "this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties," not children or "barbarians" who can't make good judgments: "Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury."

To Mill, all this was self-evident. Today, researchers in psychology and behavioral economics (and, I'd add, some other disciplines too), treat the claim as an empirical question. And, Sunstein writes, their evidence shows that Mill was simply wrong. People certainly can make good judgements about their own interests some of the time, but it appears likely that no one does this reliably all the time. In deciding how to conduct themselves in their own lives, Sunstein writes, "people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging."

So that category of "those who must be protected against their own actions" includes pretty much everyone at some time or other. As many have said to children over the ages, too bad if you don't like the nanny. You need one.

Before he became a shaper of government rules and regulations, Sunstein was best known as the creator, with Richard Thaler, of the principle of "libertarian paternalism": The theory that authorities should, as the pair have written, "attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice." Yet, he acknowledges, the questions raised are open. His is not the only possible response to post-rational research.

As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, the evidence shows that there is an unacknowledged influence on our behavior—an influence that rationalist models of the mind fail to describe. We've only started to address what that means for our ideas about self and society. At the least, we need to make sure that the future management of that unacknowledged influence is done transparently and democratically.

Or we could just drift along, imaging that behavioral research will inform only little tweaks the workings of markets, courts, workplaces, schools and other important places. In which case the transition to a post-rationalist era could end badly. It could, for example, end in a world where big corporations pay lip service to "freedom of choice" even as they spend billions on tools to wield unacknowledged influence (which can't be regulated because the official ideology of rational choice doesn't register it). Or it could end in a heavy-handed nanny state in which "choice architecture" isn't democratically debated but rather imposed by elite high-achievers.

Sunstein, though he admires Conly's "careful, provocative and novel" argument, clearly does not want to go there. Despite predictable attacks on this article from the usual suspects, he is not easily turned into an anti-freedom cartoon. In fact, he identifies the problems with excessive paternalism clearly: First, the problem of being certain that "for your own good" is correct (as we have seen since 2008, someone may be quite right to want to avoid investing in a 401(k) plan that "experts" consider wise). Second, the problem of reflecting the genuine diversity of the human race, in which some may genuinely be better off enjoying their meals than they would have been living until 98.

Conly's is, of course, a philosophy book, designed to clarify thinking, not a political manifesto. So, yes, her argument is not a realistic political threat to Big Tobacco. But philosophers who change public discourse are the harbingers of new ideas among law professors and judges and think tanks, and those eventually lead to policy change. (You could ask John Stuart Mill, if he were alive and felt like answering you of his own free will, about the eventual impact of theory on politics and society.) In 2013, "coercive authoritarianism" may be politically unrealistic. But the news here is that in 2013, after 150 years or so of rarely-questioned respect for the principle of individual autonomy among non-religious political thinkers, the terms of the debate are moving.

Illustration: Influenced by the Pied Piper, the children of Hamelin freely choose an action that is not in their best long-term interests. Via Wikimedia.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

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Scientists reactive cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
popular
  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

First year of life for six Swainson's Hawks [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

Horseshoe crabs are captured for their blue blood. That practice will soon be over.

The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.

An Atlantic horseshoe crab in an aquarium. Photo: Domdomegg via Wikimedia Commons.
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