Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Public Choice Theory and Liberating Markets in Happiness and Well-Being

By Michael Strong

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, is the national leader of the positive psychology movement. I recently ran across Martin Seligman's "Presidential Column," when, in his capacity as president of the American Psychological Association, he describes a decision by the American Psychiatric Association as "shameful." The context was the psychiatrists' decision not to participate in a joint academic journal designed to facilitate communication and share research findings between the psychological community and the psychiatric community. Seligman's account of the demise of this journal is telling:

"We published our first article and commentary in September 1997. You can read it on the web at

The dream has ended. In December 1997 the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees, acting in a closed-door meeting, withdrew from the collaboration (see article on page 42). They cited the need for a “broad review of the costs and benefits of electronic publishing projects.” This, of course, was not the whole story.

In August I began getting messages from their leadership that their board, led by the California trustees, might end their participation. In September, they put their cooperation on hold, citing the “state of the relationship between the two associations.” I was informed that APA’s policy of seeking prescription privileges for psychologists was the central problem. What publishing this scholarly journal had to do with that issue was not clear, but we crafted a disclaimer that reading Treatment did not qualify one to prescribe. It was clear, however, that their final decision to end the collaboration was political. Many of their trustees were worried that any collaboration with APA would legitimize the efforts of psychologists to obtain prescription privileges."

Both the psychiatric and psychological guilds would be outraged by my notion that we need to legalize markets in happiness and well-being, especially once they realized that that would involve the elimination of occupational licensure. Guilds exist to protect legal prerogatives.

They would also, most likely, ridicule public choice theory. Public choice theory, which is widely accepted among economists, is merely a means of analyzing government action by pointing out that most of the time most voters, lobbying groups, politicians, bureaucrats, and judges act in alignment with the information and incentives they face. Public choice theory is a helpful reminder that modern nation-state democracy is not a town meeting in Vermont.

Often academics, outside of economics, dismiss public choice theory on the grounds that they believe in their own high-minded rhetoric. But the interaction described above between the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association is far more typical of political realities, even among academics. Groups of people protect their turf. Moreover, they often disguise their rationales and motives in their public pronouncements, just as the psychiatrists tried to disguise their real rationale by canceling the joint publication project on the grounds of the need for "a broad review of the costs and benefits of electronic publishing projects." As Penn & Teller would say, "Bullshit!" - and kudos to Seligman, Mr. Positive Psychology, for describing the psychiatrists' groups' behavior as shameful.

The next step forward in consciousness is for positive people such as Seligman to realize that the behavior of the psychiatrists is the norm, whether the group involved happens to be teachers' unions, local zoning boards, manufacturers' associations, public employees' unions, defense contractors, HMOs, the AARP, or whatever. As James Madison knew, democracy is primarily about factions jockeying for power and influence, and the words used in political debates and pundit's columns reflect only a tiny fraction of daily political reality.

Daily political reality is made up of closed-door meetings in which influence is silently wielded on behalf of existing powers. Moreover, often the jockeying for power is far from the halls of legislature; if any of us would have proposed ex ante that the psychiatrists were so power-hungry that they would refuse to collaborate in an on-line journal project with the APA for fear that they would therefore grant credibility to APA efforts to break into the AMA's monopoly on writing prescriptions, we would have been ridiculed for our paranoia and cynicism.

Charlotte Twight elegantly documents the extraordinarily byzantine ways in which groups hide their tracks as they acquire power in her Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans. The problem with virtually all policy discussion is that it only touches the tip of the iceberg: those visible actions from which public policy is made. But judgments made based on the visible ignore those forthcoming collisions with the vast invisible iceberg below. This is why those concerned with the public choice mechanisms are frequently talking past those who are unconcerned by them: the real issue is often not the policy issue at hand, but the underlying power dynamics being set up each time laws are passed.

Occupational licensure is arguably the greatest obstacle to a legalized market in happiness and well-being. The licensed healers, educators, and lawyers, will cling tenaciously to their power and, precisely because they are in power, they will bring forth massive campaigns showing the incompetence of the other and the superiority of their own professional expertise. But new ways of doing things will never be born if we allow innovations to take place only within the professional boundaries of existing guilds.

Had Ph.D. engineers had a legal monopoly in the field of information technology, our technology would more closely resemble that of, say, 1975 than it does today. This is not in any way to disparage Ph.D. engineers. It is to point out that, in point of fact, many superb, innovative, Ph. D. engineers were joined by tens of thousands of amateur, unprofessional young people whose energy and experimentation were critical to the launching of a revolution.

The word “experimentation,” while lauded in technology, is ridiculed in the field of health: the response at this point is always “Do you want an amateur surgeon operating on you?” But the fact is that millions of us constantly experiment in the field of health. There is an active informal market in prescription medicines among young people, and much of the abuse of illegal drugs amounts to a rather dangerous form of self-medication. Alternative healers have helped me with insomnia after “world-class” M.D.s have utterly failed. It strikes me as an outrage that the M.D. gets ten times as much money for ineffective (and therefore quack?) cures as the real healer is able to get. You and I can still both go to our board certified surgeons. In the meantime, I’d like to move towards a world in which caring healers were better paid and monopolistic psychiatrists had to earn their keep without artificial legal protections.

Eventually, caring healers would develop new brands, new (voluntary) certifications, new ways to integrate complementary and allopathic medicine, and new organizations (for profit and non-profit) through which to make their approaches available to more people. Gradually some of the tiny, amateurish alternative health colleges would attract renegade M.D.s who wanted to create a new and better approaches to medical education, and the best of these new institutions would graduate integrative doctors that were highly sought after. Bright, caring young people would attend these unaccredited integrative medical colleges and gradually, what first appeared as an amateur movement, would develop a deeper and more humane breed of health care providers than exists at present.

Judging the future based on the present requires an act of imagination. My beautiful Mac Powerbook is not a Radio Shack home computer kit from 1975. It is, however, a direct descendent of such kits. But to get from a home kit that can be programmed to make a row of lights blink to the extraordinary tool the PC has become we absolutely had to let college drop-outs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates go off and do their own thing without professional supervision. Everything starts from tiny seeds; we must let those tiny seeds grow.

Michael Strong is the CEO of Flow, Inc., the founder of several innovative high-performance schools, and the author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. He has a related article titled “Taking the Left out of Liberalism” currently posted on the FLOW website.

Copyright FLOW, Inc. 2006