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Investing in the New Golden Fleece

David Brooks took a break today from being the Democrats’ “Man of the Hour” in the budget debate to go back to something he presumably really knows about: sociology. His column in today’s New York Times titled “The Examined Society,” is a paean to government-funded sociology research whose output the columnist assures is both cheap and useful and ought not to be lost in the orgy of spending cuts. The author of the classic Bobos in Paradise had me with him on this until he gave an example of the sort of program he favors. Brooks cited the fact that in the United States, you have to check a box if you want to opt into an organ donor program, but in countries like Poland or France, you have to check a box to opt out. The difference between the two is that while only 14 percent of Americans check the box, 90 percent of Poles and Frenchmen don’t. That means more organ donors are achieved by “one tiny and costless change in procedure.”

I’ve checked the organ donor box myself and think it would be great if more people did, too. But if the point of government funding for what Brooks calls “this golden age of behavioral research” is helping bureaucrats to come up with subtle ways of manipulating Americans to do things they might not choose to do on their own, then I have to ask why a “conservative” columnist would think this is a good thing? Is our faith in the uses of social science research so blind and our trust in Brooks’ beloved corps of sociologists so strong that it causes us to forget about the cost of the last century of government attempts at social engineering?

Brooks is old enough to remember the late Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards about goofy government spending.  Much of the government-funded research conducted by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences that Brooks lauds tends, like many of the objects of Proxmire’s scorn, to be about activity so mundane it provokes either guffaws or groans of frustration about wasteful spending from most Americans. Proxmire wasn’t always right about the targets of his barbs, but his mistakes tended to be about visionary technical research such as the first steps toward GPS systems, not the sort of sociological queries Brooks would have us fund (Proximire’s first Golden Fleece went to a federally subsidized study about why people fall in love).

Government-funded sociology may actually be quite important, but not in the way Brooks would have it. If the ultimate goal here is to discover devices that would enable the smart alecks in Washington to induce citizens to do things—even good things they haven’t freely chosen to do—then I find it hard to believe most of us would think this manipulation was either laudable or a proper use of scarce taxpayer money.


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