Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

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