Suppose we all had kitchen gardens. Now would be the time for poring over catalogs, starting seedlings under glass, thinning those already sprouted, building tents for early strawberries, pruning fruit trees, cutting back berry bushes, setting out old clothes and otherwise getting ready for spring. By April we would be outdoors, on our hands and knees, planting, weeding, digging, mowing. By July we would be working on salads and soups for our families and friends.
Instead, I have been trying to keep track of the back-stories of “The Bachelorette” and “Joe Millionaire,” so I can talk to my daughter and her friends. With 40 million viewers, Fox Television’s “Millionaire” pulled the network’s biggest non-sports audience ever Monday night. That’s a lot of potential conversations.
But I spend much of my life around economists, and most of them consider it nonsense when I say that I wish I were gardening instead of actually choosing to watch TV. Their skeptical stance is a matter of principle. It goes back, at least, to Bernard Mandeville, who nearly 200 years ago wrote:
“I don’t call things Pleasures which Men say are best, but such as they seem to be most pleased with; how can I believe that a Man’s chief Delight is in the Embellishments of the Mind, when I see him ever employ’d about and daily pursue the Pleasures that are contrary to them?”
This doctrine that real preferences are revealed in actual choices has ruled the roost in economics ever since Paul Samuelson codified it in Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947 as the standard approach to consumer choice. Interpersonal comparisons of utility already had been ruled out of bounds — no economist worth his salt was prepared to argue that farmers gained more from a protective tariff than consumers lost.
Now all preferences and desires were officially equally valid. There was no reasonable way to prefer one to another. It was only a short step to the recent enthusiasm for taxes that treat all assets classes alike. There was no point in granting tax subsidies to, say, those who owned homes.
The effect of Samuelson’s postulate — refined over the years by some of the most subtle minds of economics — was to give new life to the old adage that, at least among economists, there can be no disputing tastes. They simply are what they are. Before long, Milton Friedman was confidently asserting, “The economist has little to say about the formation of wants; this is the province of the psychologist. The economist’s task is to trace the consequences of any given set of wants.”
Of course, all the while the assumption has been under fire. Whether it was John Kenneth Galbraith’s arguments that corporations freely created new appetites or Christian von Weizsacker’s opposite conjecture that perhaps corporations were altogether too accepting of existing tastes, economists in the ’60s, raised plenty of doubts about the conventional wisdom.
Then in the ’70s and ’80s, economists ranging from Amartya Sen to Burton Weisbrod to Gary Becker, sociologists led by Jon Elster, not to mention philosophers, psychologists, political theorists and others of that ilk, proffered formal models of preference formation. Not that the profession is ready to formally surrender on the issue yet. But the old consensus has been taking fire in a way that makes you think that it is just a matter of time before economists begin systematically offering an account of how our wants arise and change over time.
A good example of such an attempt is Preference Pollution: How Markets Create the Desires We Dislike, the book from which this little sketch is drawn. David George, a professor of economics at LaSalle University, is a forceful and lively mind. The capacity to have preferences about our preferences is precisely what makes us human, he says, following the philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
So quite aside from what we want or choose or are moved to do, George says, the more interesting questions have to do with how our deeper and more reflective desires are channeled and allowed to operate — second-order preferences, he calls them, in that they consist of different goals.
George argues that “un-preferred preferences,” inculcated by market participants, have begun to gain the upper hand over second-order preferences, as social institutions that traditionally have served to alleviate the mismatch between them and our deeper desires have weakened with the dramatic turn towards markets of the last thirty years.
Many of the arguments here are of a sort that only a professional logician could love. Does personal autonomy presuppose the existence of a “sane deep self,” as the philosopher Susan Wolf has argued? Or are humans better understood in terms of “multiple” selves, each simultaneously possessing several different rankings of the same elements?
Such a model is very different from a first-and-second order preference conception, warns George. It presupposes the existence of a paternalistic Self, routinely acting to prevent the Self itself from choosing what he really prefers — Ulysses lashing himself to the mast to resist the Sirens’ song, in a famous example.
But individual techniques of self-control such as these — locking the refrigerator after dinner or never drinking before 6 P.M. — may be a poor way to understand the social dimension of preferences. Individuals may speak of “having” a preference, he says, but courts of law don’t treat preferences as a property right. They are much more nearly like those phenomena that economists call externalities — what the rest of us describe as “spillovers.”
Viewed through this lens, the institutions that most deeply affect our second order preferences are those that constitute great subtle networks in society, for good and ill. They are generally less functional than the common language that we share, which is surely the most wondrous network of all. And they probably impinge less visibly than the harmful external effects to which George compares them — pollution and congestion.
But they are only slightly less difficult to avoid. They are typified by the “reality” shows that suddenly have overgrown primetime television like algae in a pond. According to George, they include phenomena as diverse as fast food restaurants, suburbs that necessitate automobiles to get from place to place, adventurous sexual mores, spectator sports, the heightened appetite for gambling games and the surge of easy consumer credit.
Meanwhile, old-fashioned intermediaries whose role was to shape our choices have declined in significance — the high school teacher, the television network, the influential critic of the arts, the mortgage banker, the cleric, the town fathers, the League of Women Voters. The result is that our “better selves” today are exposed almost exclusively to market forces that have been specifically designed to loosen self-reliance and self-control. Instead of planning kitchen gardens, we have 40 million people tuning in to watch good-looking young men and women traveling in limousines between hotel rooms and empty houses to their dates.
I’m not sure that David George has the right answers to this problem, with his pollution metaphor and graphical representations of “market failures” of various sorts. The word “network,” I think, does not appear in his book. But I feel quite certain that he and the others like him are asking the right questions.
Economists have proved very good these last thirty years at taking down barriers to transactions between consenting adults. Before long, they may face the challenge of putting some of them back up — the civic equivalents of the guard rails that we take for granted on our highways.
These necessary safeguards may turn out to be exotic and as yet unimagined. Then again, they may resemble relatively simple institutions that we already know well — public schools, a citizen army, government watchdogs, capable police, corporate pensions, universal health insurance and, perhaps, even write-offs for houses and their kitchen gardens.