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Gilles Saint-Paul, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism

Robert Sugden
p. 264-267
Bibliographical reference

Gilles Saint-Paul, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, vii + 163 pages, ISBN 978-069112817-7

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1The Tyranny of Utility may seem a rather mysterious title, but the subtitle makes clear what Gilles Saint-Paul means by it. His thesis is that a combination of utilitarian philosophy and behavioural social science—specifically, behavioural economics and cognitive psychology—is being used to legitimise paternalistic interventions in individuals’ private affairs, and that this is a path that leads to tyranny. His opponents are the advocates of “the new paternalist state” (4). On the jacket, Deidre McCloskey compares Saint-Paul’s book with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. The comparison is apt. Saint-Paul in 2011, like Hayek in 1944, is a classical liberal opposing a prevailing current of interventionist thought. His argument will seem reactionary and alarmist to bien pensant academics, just as Hayek’s did. But there was more truth in Hayek’s arguments than most readers recognised at the time, and the same may turn out to be true of Saint-Paul’s.

2 On the first page, Saint-Paul declares his support for the principle of liberty expressed in 1789 in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights”. For Saint-Paul, freedom and responsibility are inseparable: “Freedom without responsibility is extortion” (10). By this, he means that each individual must bear the consequences of his or her own free choices—and not expect others to pick up the tab. But, he says, this liberal conception of freedom and responsibility “only makes sense if one adheres to the conception of Man as a rational individual endowed with free will” (11). And then (in what may be a fatal argumentative move) he endorses the version of that conception that appears in neoclassical economics, according to which a rational individual has a ‘unitary’ self with consistent preferences (12).

3 Saint-Paul argues, I think correctly, that neoclassical welfare economics is an unstable combination of utilitarian consequentialism and classical liberalism. Consequentialism appears in the idea of a social welfare function that is to be maximised. Classical liberalism is represented by the empirical assumption that individuals act rationally on the basis of consistent preferences, combined with the normative principle that social welfare is an increasing function of each individual’s utility, “utility” being interpreted as a representation of a preference ordering. As long as that empirical assumption was accepted as true, neoclassical welfare economics could deliver generally liberal conclusions even though it was grounded on non-liberal utilitarian principles. Saint-Paul sees “great beauty in this attempt to base limited government on a scientific prescription”. But the attempt “is crumbling under the progress of that very science” (39).

4 He is clear-sighted in recognising the findings of behavioural social science. He accepts that, in many cases, the hypothesis that individuals act on consistent preferences has been disconfirmed. He even acknowledges that behavioural economics is more scientific that what it is replacing. Neoclassical economics, he says, is not a “modern science”; it is “archaic”, a mathematical formalisation of an “eighteenth-century-style philosophical system” (59). This is a brave move, given Saint-Paul’s allegiance to the eighteenth-century liberalism of the Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789. But he seems to be painting himself into a corner. If the Enlightenment principles of freedom and responsibility make sense only if human beings are rational in ways that science has shown they are not, how can those principles be defended?

5 For most of the length of the book, Saint-Paul does not tackle this question. Instead, he identifies what he sees as the characteristic features of the new paternalist state, examines the arguments that behavioural social scientists use to legitimise these features, and points out the dangers of these trends in social policy and social thought. As he sometimes comes close to acknowledging, the picture he is drawing is dystopian. But, like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s brave new world, or the serfdom at the end of Hayek’s road, Saint-Paul’s new paternalist state has enough connection with current trends in public policy to be both informative and disturbing.

6 Saint-Paul documents a wide range of recent policy developments, justified by behavioural social science, that undermine freedom and responsibility. Some of these diminish freedom by imposing paternalistic restrictions on private choices, intended to protect individuals against themselves—for example, proposals to restrict the sale of unhealthy foods. Others involve a phenomenon that Saint-Paul calls responsibility transfer: one agent is held responsible for the consequences of what would otherwise have been the private choices of another, with the implication that the former is expected to be paternalistic towards the latter. Most commonly, responsibility is transferred from consumers to the suppliers of the goods they choose to buy, or from workers to their employers. For example, fast-food restaurants are held responsible for the obesity of customers who eat too much of their products; employers are held responsible for accidents to workers who take risks in the workplace. A third type of policy imposes preventive restrictions. A person is prohibited from behaving in some way that is not directly harmful to others, but which is judged to make it more likely that he will make a further choice that is harmful. Saint-Paul sees gun-control laws as falling into this category. Responsibility transfer and preventive restriction are sometimes combined: one of Saint-Paul’s examples is the case of a French bartender who was convicted as an accomplice to a fatal accident caused by a drunken customer (119-120).

7 Saint-Paul points to the political dangers of the behavioural approach. By denying the normative authority of individuals’ preferences, it makes the state the “key producer of values”; this leaves no independent source of values to challenge the state’s interventions in people’s lives (91). Once it is accepted that individuals cannot be relied on to make rational inferences from the information at their disposal, what reason is there for a government not to manipulate the dissemination of scientific findings in what it judges to be individuals’ best interests? The interventions of the paternalistic state are justified on the grounds that individual behaviour would otherwise be irresponsible; but what guarantees the responsibility of the state? Saint-Paul notes the irony of behavioural policies designed to induce greater personal saving, promoted by governments that are running large deficits and financing them by inflation.

8 To guard against responsibility being transferred to me as a reviewer, I must warn would-be readers of The Tyranny of Utility that they may be offended. Indeed, Saint-Paul sometimes seems to be going out of his way to contravene what he calls “feelings-based ethics” (96). His leading example of an unjustified preventive restriction is the case of a man who, after five convictions for sexual groping of women on British trains over a period of thirty years, was served a Sexual Offences Prevention Order prohibiting him from rail travel. Saint-Paul calls this restriction “extreme”, commenting that the kind of sexual assault involved “would have been considered quite minor in most cultures for most of history” (104-105). He perhaps sees this change in public opinion as an instance of what, in another context, he tactlessly refers to as “feminist bigotry” (101). In another expression of exasperation about the state of Britain, he objects to signs that say that verbal abuse of public employees will lead to prosecution; he sees this as “repressing” a form of legitimate protest (128). I cannot agree that Enlightenment liberalism requires the toleration of sexual and verbal abuse, but I must confess a sneaking admiration for an author who is so curmudgeonly, so unapologetic about being politically incorrect.

9 So what is Saint-Paul’s solution to the problem he has diagnosed? Disappointingly, the reader has to wait for this until the last two pages of the book, and when it comes it is something of a fudge. If I have understood him correctly, he maintains the claim that classical liberalism is possible only if individuals have unitary selves and consistent preferences, but asserts his conviction (it is too late in the book for him to provide supporting arguments) that if society treats people as “responsible and unitary”, that will elicit responsible and unitary behaviour. Thus: “the merit of a liberal society is ... that, by imposing responsibility, it makes free will possible in a way compatible with the viability of society itself” (153). But this line of argument depends on an empirical hypothesis for which no evidence has been provided—namely, that liberal institutions will elicit behaviour that accords with neoclassical economic theory. Since, according to his account, that theory is grounded on a philosophical system rather than on science, it is hard to see why Saint-Paul expects his hypothesis to stand up to the tests of observation and experiment.

10 I think Saint-Paul is right to say that Enlightenment liberalism makes sense only if individuals can be construed as having free will and the capacity to take responsibility for their actions. But his argument was doomed as soon as it identified the normative conception of a responsible agent with the neoclassical model of rational choice. If one wants to maintain the principles of Enlightenment liberalism while accepting the findings of behavioural science, one must find a new way of understanding individual responsibility. I think this can be done, but a review is not the place to explain how. Still, even if Saint-Paul does not really solve the problem that is giving rise to the new paternalist state, his diagnosis of the problem is a significant achievement.

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Bibliographical reference

Robert Sugden, Gilles Saint-Paul, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism Œconomia, 2-2 | 2012, 264-267.

Electronic reference

Robert Sugden, Gilles Saint-Paul, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism Œconomia [Online], 2-2 | 2012, Online since 01 June 2015, connection on 12 May 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Robert Sugden

University of East Anglia

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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