by Malte Dold
Two of my favorite articles by Mario Rizzo are “Abstract Morality for an Abstract Order: Liberalism’s Difficult Problem” (Supreme Court Economic Review, 2015) and “Behavioral Economics and Deficient Willpower: Searching for Akrasia” (The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, 2016). Both of these recent articles wonderfully illustrate the depth, breadth, and originality of Mario’s thinking. On one hand, they reflect his deep knowledge of the history of economic and philosophical thought. On the other hand, they deal with contemporary challenges in economic, legal, and psychological theory. Many of my co-congratulators correctly emphasized how well-read Mario is in economics and philosophy. Personally, I love and admire his ventures into psychology.
In “Abstract Morality for an Abstract Order,” Mario emphasizes the Hayekian observation that the success of liberalism hinges upon the realization of abstract principles. In order to develop his case for a liberal social order, Mario discusses major classical liberal thinkers – inter alia, Ferguson, Smith, Spencer and Hayek – and explains the crucial role of abstract rules (e.g., in form of the generality principle). Many economists might struggle to deal with such a broad topic in a concise manner. For Mario, the formation of such ideas seems analogous to an afternoon étude composed between an espresso macchiato (or a chamomile tea) and a trip to the MET Breuer where he plays tribute to Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon. In the latter part of the article, Mario grounds his economic-philosophical arguments in empirical findings from psychology. He connects abstract moral and legal rules within a psychological framework known as construal level theory. According to the latter, moral problems can be construed in abstract/higher or concrete/lower terms. High‐level construals are coherent and integrative whereas low‐level representations are specific and disparate. Crucially, the stability of a liberal order demands abstract problem construal (e.g. in form of freedom of contract). However, the judicial and political process often primes parties to concrete problem construal (the “here and now”). Mario argues that the understanding of these underlying psychological processes is the prerequisite for a sensible discussion of current challenges to a liberal social order.
In “Behavioral Economics and Deficient Willpower,” Mario dissects the behavioral economists’ belief in the ubiquity of weakness-of-will phenomena. At the article’s conclusion, one wonders what is left of the phenomenon that is so central to the self-understanding of the behavioral economic community. Mario shows that behavioral economists greatly underestimate the difficulties in empirically and conceptually distinguishing deficient willpower from other kinds of behavior (e.g., in situations in which the individual believes that the balance of advantages between two courses of action is ambiguous or has shifted over time). Mario reveals that many behavioral economists have not examined the phenomenon precisely enough. Moreover, they do not live up to their own promise to take the psychological literature seriously. In this article, as in many other articles on the subject of rationality and behavioral economics, Mario advocates a psychology of decisionmaking that emphasizes the absence of final judgments. Instead, he underlines the importance of cognitive opportunity costs and cyclic dialectical reasoning that lead to processes of tentative decisionmaking and fuzzy preferences. Frank Knight is one of Mario’s important sources of inspiration in this regard as are recent findings in psychological research.
What is my take-away from these two articles? Mario is not merely a great Austrian economist and a thought-provoking classical liberal philosopher. He is also an empirically-minded thinker who grounds his theoretical arguments in psychological insights. I have learned and developed immensely as a result of his work and the many personal encounters with him over the last several years. Thank you and tanti auguri, professore!