It's tempting to believe that left to our own devices, we'll all maximize our health, make smart investment decisions and generally follow our instincts on the road to happiness.
But it turns out that cigarettes are addictive, that financial distress causes people to make short-term decisions that are damaging, and that we even have trouble doing smart and easy things with a 401(k).
Culture is powerful. Marketing makes it even more powerful. Financial interests are powerful, too.
If peer pressure and short-term urgencies set us up to do things we regret, we come out ahead when we support cultural changes that remove that peer pressure and lessen those short-term urgencies.
We know that wearing a bicycle helmet can save us from years in the hospital, but some people feel awkward being the only one in a group to do so. A helmet law, then, takes away that problem and we come out ahead. Same for seat belts. One less decision to make.
One of the biggest contributors to decreased cigarette usage is a tax. A tax on sugary drinks has a huge impact on people's health. Is this the encroachment of the dreaded nanny state? It's better than being sick, or dead. It's hard to imagine being a parent and being opposed to these boundaries and disincentives.
Banks have a ton of policies designed to remove the temptation of their officers to engage in any sort of graft or corruption. The policies reduce the cognitive load, eliminate temptation and let people get back to work.
Guard rails always seem like an unwanted intrusion on personal freedom. Until we get used to them. Then we wonder how we lived without them.
Economics was built on a flawed assumption: That we are rational, profit-seeking, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. If all that were true, we'd be living in a very different world.
Instead, the humans among us can benefit from realizing that in fact, we're deeply incompetent at making certain kinds of decisions, that well-funded marketers are working overtime to confuse and deceive us, and that cultural guardrails not only help us avoid pitfalls, but give us the reinforcements we need to get back to productive work and healthy lives.