Below is my comment from an article titled Psychologists are known for being liberal but is that because they understand how people think?

I agree with Katharine and Thomas that Prof. Berkman’s characterization of libertarian ideas is a bit off, and that he could just as reasonably adjust his ideas about what libertarianism implies as jump to a different camp.

“[P]rotecting individual liberties was the highest purpose of law.” I can go along with this one. But “the government should have no role in shaping people’s behavior” needs some unpacking. Does a law against murder count as shaping behavior or not? Or are we talking about mind control lasers to pierce my tinfoil hat? Given the topic of the article, perhaps the author actually refers to using insights from social psychology in the creation of government policy and social reality. I am in favor of this, so long as it is done with transparency, and people who are having their behavior “shaped” know what’s up. Has it ever happened?

“These views tended to align with Republican positions more than Democratic ones on issues such as gun control, environmental policy and treatment for addiction.” I can see the temptation, but this is oversimplified. I think Prof. Berkman is asking something like this: given the status quo, do libertarians tend to want to change things in the same direction as Republicans or Democrats? On these three issues, Democrats typically want “more” and Republicans want “less”. When we stick to this level of detail, Prof. Bergman is more or less right. But this misses the real point. In a sense, libertarians want *more* environmental protection, but they think it should be based on property rights, not arbitrary government edicts. We want more and better treatment for addiction, but it should have nothing to do with government coercion. We want better gun safety and better prevention of gun crime, but we think the current approach is a disaster. The real question is, how far outside the box do we want to go?

“I believed that people should have every opportunity to make their own choices.” Here he got it right. “[A]nd should bear the full responsibility of the consequences of those choices.” We could talk about what this might mean. Does someone who is insured bear the full responsibility of the consequences of their choices? If we can shield ourselves or others from the consequences of mistakes, I don’t oppose this in principle. I am concerned that in some cases we cannot do so without taking control of their lives paternalistically.

“The libertarian worldview assumes that each of us is a homo libertus, a creature that acts with its full mental capacity all the time, reasoning through every decision in terms of its complete implications for the individual’s values and well-being.” Here Prof. Berkman goes far astray. Our profound imperfection as human beings motivates our need for libertarian social institutions. We are ignorant, irrational, and error-prone, and so we need space to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. I think Ms. Frizzle read Hayek. The perfect “homo libertus” Prof. Bergman describes sounds more like something from Rousseau or Kant.

Prof. Bergman strains his rhetoric in his three examples. With respect to gun ownership, he considers only the possibility of a free-for-all, and not surprisingly, finds it unappealing. He conflates US foreign aid and charitable giving. He shows that people have self-control problems. As Katharine pointed out, none of this leads us to the conclusion that the government is either able or willing to solve these problems. Have legislators and bureaucrats lined up outside Prof. Berkman’s door, struggling for the chance to hire him to employ the insights of social psychology to rid their own thought processes, legislative initiatives and institutional structures of bias and irrationality? I express skepticism.

Prof. Berkman neglected to mention research on learning, motivation, incentives and creativity. These areas also tend to undermine the shallow version of libertarianism, as libertarians long have been associated with conventional neoclassical economics, with its emphasis on the role of the profit motive and monetary incentives. It turns out that threats and bribes only rarely work well. But then again, the government, more than any other institution, relies entirely on threats of violence to enforce its will. So the statist falls foul of this critique to the same or greater degree.

I also claim to no longer really qualify as a libertarian, to have found criticisms that I think libertarians can’t answer. For better or worse, liberals and conservatives cannot answer these criticisms either. So I am something else, currently unlabelled. (Please do not mention centrists.) We have only begun to feel the effects of a technology revolution that will outdo Gutenberg and put incredible stress on every institution of society. We can attempt to slow the pace of society to match that of government, or we can try to adapt to the new reality. But something’s got to change.

I recommend to libertarians and all others the study of social psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, etc. in order to try to understand the human condition, the way our minds work, and apply it to improve our lives. (I particularly recommend Jonanthan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.) Perhaps I am just confirming my biases, but so far my study of psychology only reinforces my opinion that we have many opportunities to replace coercion with cooperation and paternalism with participation. That sounds more like libertarianism than liberalism or conservatism.