why economics and addiction do not mix

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. —H. L. Mencken

Here, here.

Focusing on “how addicts make decisions” is hammering the proverbial nail in sideways…. And so, I kindly ask economics to stop trying to figure out what sort of logic addicts use. It acts as though thoughtful, tailored decision-making processes are involved, it insults any person struggling with addiction, and above all, it sends us two steps back in alluding that addiction is a logical disorder.

I think behavioral economics is fascinating and see an important place for it in policy formulation, but it has its limits. It seems to have a tendency to fall prey to the answers that Mencken references.

I have a couple problems with its application to addiction.

First, applying some sort of “decisional science” to the decisions of people with an illness whose hallmark is impaired volitional control seems problematic. Especially when you consider that addiction interferes with the addict’s ability to evaluate options and interferes with the addict’s ability to execute their own wishes. This is further complicated by the fact that the degree of impairment is not static, it fluctuates over time.

My second concern is that there seems to a lot of libertarian influence in the field. They emphasize external factors and their influence on decision making, but at the end of the day, they still frame these decisions (including addiction) as acts of free will—decisions freely made and based on some internal logic that the rest of us just have a difficult time understanding.