Friday, May 16, 2014

Cicero Is not Dead

I like Adam Smith's distillation of Plato via Cicero not just because Smith is the father of modern economics, but because the triapartite relationship between Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero reminds me a bit of the three big names in Japan's warring states period: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

An old Shogun-era Japanese fable says that Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu were sharing tea in a courtyard one spring evening. A nightingale lit upon a nearby cherry bough. Wishing to hear birdsong, Nobunaga drew a blade and said, "little bird, if you do not sing, I will kill you." Hideyoshi, a trifle less bloodlust in his voice, clenched a fist and cried, "little bird, if you do not sing, I will make you sing." Ieyasu took a sip of his tea, looked up into the tree and said, "little bird, if you do not sing, I will wait for you to sing." The punchline is of course, that the Tokugawa shogunate lasted for 265 years.

Though they wrote on similar topics, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero impress Western political economy the way the three daimyo impressed Japanese political economy: if you squint hard enough, you see one idealist, one moderate, and one practical realist. Of course, squinting hard enough to mix up samurai armor with a toga might require a bit of vinegar in the eyes.

When, centuries later, Smith finds that Cicero the hardbitten realist has taken from Plato the vaporous idealist a distillation important enough to call a "divine maxim", the alert student should take note. Cicero found a 300-year-old bit of political philosophy important enough to annex for use in the Roman senate. That's important enough on it own. More to the point, a Scot near to two thousand years later thought this expropriation important enough to include in one of the most important passages in his most cherished work. I assert that this heuristic of governance, to "never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents" has passed two critical filters: salience and longevity. This rule is important enough to Plato to have developed it, important enough to Cicero to have adopted it, and important enough to Smith to have used it in an admonition against the natural hubris of political elites. It has survived for more than 2000 years, and since the 1890s or so, it has been tacitly found wanting.

Consider many of the results of laboratory psychology, or of experimental economics. In laboratory settings, participants demonstrate time inconsistency, valuation asymmetries, maladapative heuristics, and a rather startling capacity to be fooled, tricked, swindled, and hoodwinked. Hucksters have their own divine maxim: "a fool and his money are soon parted." Does not the panoply of non-euvoluntary, irrational exchange vitiate Plato's Divine Maxim?

Well, judging from the few times I've crossed sabers with Richard Thaler on Twitter, I think he'd say "no." His idea of soft paternalism is consistent with Plato, with Cicero, with Smith, with the durable traditions of personal autonomy in Western Civilization. I think the only fatal error bound in the choice architecture project is to imagine that legislatures are populated with modern-day Solons and Ciceros, that the median politician will temper legislation with decent Aristotelian phronesis. If actual flesh-and-blood politicians were reliably keen to adhere to a heuristic of doing no violence to constituents than they would to their parents, I'd be happier than a clam to hand over the design of choice defaults.

But if instead, politicians prove intemperate in their reign, if they are fallible, corruptible, or prone to err, I might be a bit more leery about aiming their truncheons in the direction of constituents' personal affairs. Do you really want Chris Christie nudging you?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?