Richard Thaler – Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Richard Thaler – Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Part Thaler’s career autobiography, and part biography of the field of behavioral economics. Thaler is coauthor of Nudge with Cass Sunstein, and won the 2017 economics Nobel. He is also an excellent popular writer, which the profession could use more of. His tone is friendly and conversational, he uses frequent humor, and he explains concepts in an engaging way, while also giving plenty of attention to the sometimes quirky personalities behind those ideas.

While I do recommend this book, behavioral economics is not nearly as radical or subversive as Thaler sells it to be. Nor do his normative conclusions entirely hold up. Adam Smith himself rejected the Homo economicus model, and Frank Knight’s 1921 landmark Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit is essentially a sustained debunking of the standard model that runs for 375 pages. Hayek and Keynes, for all their disagreements, were united in having little use for the perfect competition model. Hayek’s spontaneous order is about flexibility, adaptation, and imperfect knowledge –all of which the perfect competition model denies. Keynes’ phrase “animal spirits” perfectly captures an important factor in economic life, and is similarly incompatible with perfect competition.

Thaler also clearly takes umbrage at the most common criticism of his nudging proposals. It runs as follows:

  1. People are not fully rational.
  2. People designing nudges are people.
  3. Nudgers are not fully rational.
  4. Therefore nor are their nudges.

Thaler does not substantively address this criticism, but he does flash some temper. It clearly strikes a nerve. He also reacts precisely as he accuses his opponents of doing to his arguments—dismissing it with a “wave of the invisible hand,” as he terms it. This refusal to engage a major criticism is the book’s biggest flaw.

Economists and policymakers would do well to listen to Thaler and other behavioral economists’ insights on psychology and human behavior. They should also keep in mind that nudgers are just as fallible as the people they hope to nudge. A large top-down error is hard to undo; millions of smaller bottom-up errors by individuals tend to cancel out by dint of their large number. Even the largest on-the-ground individual error is positively benign compared to what a politician or an agency error could impose on millions of individuals.

In short: Thaler’s work is valuable for the is, but likely more harmful than helpful when it gets to the ought phase. His ideas are very much worth engaging, and this book delivers them superbly.

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