Sunday, July 8, 2012

Watching Behavior Before Writing the Rules

by Richard Thaler

New York Times

July 7, 2012

As a general rule, the United States government is run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists. Others interested in helping the lawyers out need not apply.

Of course, there are some exceptions. The government employs scientists of many varieties in technical capacities, from estimating the environmental toxicity of a chemical to the structural soundness of a bridge. But when it comes to forming policies, these scientists and, especially, behavioral scientists are rarely at the table with the lawyers and the economists.

Economists teach us that monopolies are harmful, and this is no exception. Are they really the only social scientists with anything useful to contribute to the efficient running of a government? Imagine that along with the Council of Economic Advisers, a Council of Behavioral Scientist Advisers also provided counsel to the president. What might emerge from such a group?

Thanks to an initiative of the British government, we have some evidence about the benefits that might emerge. Shortly after his center-right coalition took office nearly two years ago, David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, established a tiny branch of government called the Behavioral Insights Team. It is led by David Halpern, a social psychologist who has a deep understanding of the workings of government, having previously served in the Labor government of Tony Blair.

Dr. Halpern has a staff of eight civil servants, in addition to a few visiting doctoral students on short-term leave from their universities. The team also has a group of unpaid academic advisers, including me — showing that economists will elbow their way into any activity. As I have been involved with this effort from the beginning, and because I am an economist who also teaches behavioral science — I am not an unbiased source. But having recently returned from a week in London working with the Behavioral Insights Team, I am in a good position to report on some of its progress.


Paul Hoppe

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