The paternalistic state

Behavioral sciences have revolutionized our understanding of the choices and actions of individuals. These approaches open up new public policies which raise important ethical and political questions.

Individuals respond to incentives. This maxim, which every economics student hears themselves repeating, is still the foundation of the dominant conception of public policies today. The reality, however, is more complicated. Scientific developments over the past three decades demonstrate spectacular progress in the understanding of human behavior. THE behavioral sciences designate all research aimed at identifying the mechanisms that account for the choices made by individuals, as well as explaining their prevalence in a particular context. The emergence of behavioral economics at the end of the 1970s and its prominent place in contemporary economic science are symptomatic of the growing importance of behavioral sciences.

But economics is far from being the only discipline to have participated in their development. Psychology, neuroscience, but also biology or evolutionary anthropology are called upon in this new approach to human behavior. This context is the one in which Homo sapiens in the city. Co-written by a researcher in cognitive sciences and an economist specializing in the evaluation of public policies, the work offers the non-specialist reader an in-depth introduction to the results of behavioral sciences and the way in which they can be mobilized for the design and implementation public policies. Beyond that, the book lays the groundwork for completely rethinking public policies in the light of behavioral sciences.

The book thus presents several characteristic features of human behavior highlighted by the behavioral sciences and explains their relevance from the point of view of the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies. It emerges that behavioral traits must be taken into account in public policies at two levels. On the one hand, they can be seen as tools or some levers of public action. On the other hand, behavioral traits are not only relevant to the question of how to dothey also give valuable information on the what to doin other words on what public action can target as well as on the constraints which weigh on its deployment.

Behaviors as levers of public action

The question of how to do is closely linked to developments in behavioral economics, associated in particular with the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Richard Thaler. The latter serve as a starting point for the authors who, in the first chapter, review a certain number of cognitive biases which significantly affect individual behavior (anchoring bias, availability heuristic, etc.). They then illustrate how these biases can be used in the context of public action, as levers to influence behavior, without resorting to coercion or monetary incentive. For example, as documented in the literature, our choices are very largely influenced by the way in which information is presented to us (what is called the framing effect or framing effect) or by the option which is chosen by default in the case where we do not make an active choice. The handling of architectures of choice is thus an important lever available to public policies to act on our decisions in multiple areas (food choices, investment and savings choices, etc.).

However, the behavioral levers available to public authorities do not stop at cognitive biases. For reasons linked to our evolutionary history and in particular to the environmental constraints associated with life within small human communities living from hunting, we attach great importance to our reputation. We also tend to be conditional cooperators, that is to say inclined to make sacrifices in the short term as long as they are part of a reciprocal relationship with others. Our willingness to cooperate and our sensitivity to reputational effects also give great importance to social norms, at least the perception we have of them. This is an important lever for public policies to promote, for example, behaviors that are more respectful of the environment (choosing the electric car) or demonstrating a form of solidarity towards others (increasing donations to charitable associations). Converselyas illustrated by the practice of binge drinking, social norms can also have detrimental effects on well-being. Acting directly on the standard is then a way to remedy it.

Behavioral sciences, and what public action can do (and not do)

The work also shows that behavioral sciences can serve as a guide to public action by identifying its constraints and the possibilities open to it. Among the constraints, what we could call the sense of fairness individuals, also inherited from our evolutionary history, appear in the first line. As the authors assert in chapter 5, a public policy entirely focused on efficiency or the maximization of collective well-being will encounter strong opposition if it does not otherwise satisfy an equity criterion. A corollary to this proposition is that in certain cases, the implementation of a public policy must be accompanied by work to highlight the inequity of the existing situation, as the authors suggest in the case of the excessive place given to the automobile in the organization of cities. Some readers, starting with this one, may nevertheless find this chapter somewhat unsatisfactory.

An important issue that the authors of the work raise too quickly is the diversity of conceptions of equity within the same society, a diversity that can also be partly explained by our evolutionary history. The authors implicitly adopt a Rawlsian conception of fairness against utilitarian ethics, but when the concept of the veil of ignorance is discussed (p. 137), the works cited suggest on the contrary that individuals placed under the veil of ignorance behave in a utilitarian manner. However, this does not detract from the relevance of the central idea of ​​the chapter.

Anti-poverty policies are an area where the contributions of behavioral sciences are particularly significant. In line with recent sociological research, the authors show that the prejudices according to which poverty is the result of distinctive behavioral traits in the populations concerned (strong preference for the present, less willingness to make effort) are without scientific basis. On the contrary, an evolutionary and behavioral perspective suggests that the behaviors of poor households are essentially the result of adaptation to an environment which requires, on the part of the populations concerned, a constant and sustained cognitive effort to take into account short-term considerations. . In other words, far from fighting irrationality assumes poor populations, behavioral sciences instead recommend acting on the environmental factors that push poor individuals to focus on urgent choices to the detriment of long-term investments.

Finally, behavioral sciences confirm an intuition that many of us share: private actors have long developed strategies to exploit the behavioral traits of individuals to their advantage. In particular, what we sometimes call nudges takes advantage of cognitive biases identified in behavioral economics to push consumers to make choices sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being. We can think here of the multitude of marketing artifices used by certain companies to push individuals to make impulsive purchases or to direct them towards particular offers or products. The placement of products on the shelves, the fact of selling them at a price showing a reduction or even the choice of terms with which they are associated are all means available to companies to influence consumer choices. Behavioral sciences not only reveal the mechanisms behind these practices, but also provide numerous indications as to the way in which public policies can neutralize them.

ethics and political economy of behavioral sciences

The work can be read as a plea for a more in-depth and systematic use of behavioral sciences in public policies. More generally, the authors promote an approach to public policies better anchored in science and more sensitive to empirical and experimental evidence, whether at the level of their design or their evaluation. The numerous references to the methodology of controlled random experiments popularized in particular by Esther Duflo clearly go in this direction.

The call to broaden the use of behavioral sciences nevertheless raises ethical and political questions. As the authors note and briefly discuss (pp. 59-66), what we can call behavioral public policies raises the specter of paternalism of a particularly pernicious type, because it exploits, at least in certain cases, psychological resources of which individuals are not aware. For example, a public policy that aims to encourage individuals to reduce their energy consumption by indicating the average consumption in their neighborhood on their bill is a way of taking advantage of the importance we give to standards to influence behavior. Even if it is not, as such, a simple piece of information brought to the attention of consumers, the underlying objective is to influence individual behavior without those primarily concerned being necessarily aware of this influence. The authors rightly point out that the strength of this objection depends on the underlying conception of freedom and autonomy that one holds. In any case, the fact that a policy is paternalistic does not automatically disqualify it, in particular when it pursues goals widely shared in society.

Although the book does not explicitly address this point, the systematization of the use of behavioral sciences in the governance of society raises questions more generally regarding the implications regarding the political nature of liberal democracies. In particular, what is true for consumer behavior is also true for the behavior of citizen readers. Unsurprisingly, work suggests that the same biases govern the determination of citizens' preferences and political choices. This opens the way to the idea of ​​a political paternalism that the mere invocation of a democratic principle cannot suffice to refute. The systematization of the use of behavioral sciences can also go hand in hand with a strengthening of the technocratic dimension of Western democracies, with more particularly the risk that the implementation, but also the purposes of public policies, escape democratic control. This is why, regardless of the position that everyone may have regarding these considerations, it is essential to inform citizens as widely as possible of the existence and role that behavioral sciences play in our societies. The work of C. Chevallier and M.Perona is from this point of view an important contribution to the democratic debate.