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Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics--and Why it Matters Hardcover – December 16, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Ubel, physician and behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, marketers exploit basic human irrationality to persuade people to consume dangerously unhealthy foods and spend more money than they have. Contending that capitalism inherently exploits its participants' vulnerabilities, Ubel posits that it's the government responsibility to guide people to act in their own self-interest with educational campaigns and, possibly, taxes or restrictions on advertising to children. The book explores why such measures have been criticized with a swift discussion on free-choice economics and modern-rationalist economists; equal time is devoted to the findings of scientists and psychologists that rebut such perspectives. While Ubel presents a nuanced treatment of issues often reduced to sound bites, his arguments can be difficult to follow; further, his disdain for everything from snack food to beer, television and expensive prescription drugs might strike some readers as sanctimonious.
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“ accessible guide…combination of the theoretical and the practical, along with the author’s ability to move smoothly between the two, that gives the book its charm.” - Strategy + Business, Summer 2009 Issue

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 257 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press; First Edition, 1st Printing edition (December 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1422126099
  • ISBN-13: 978-1422126097
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,162,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Peter Ubel is a physician and a behavioral scientist at Duke University. He is the author of three previous books: Pricing Life (MIT Press, 2000); You're Stronger Than You Think(McGraw-Hill, 2006); and Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics--and Why It Matters (Harvard Business Press, 2009). He has contributed to The New York Times , The Los Angeles Times, Psychology Today, and The New England Journal of Medicine , among other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Stephen R. Laniel on December 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Behavioral-economics books are thick on the ground nowadays. Violations of classical economic rationality are such a part of the mainstream that they've garnered a Nobel Prize and the ear of the president-elect. So it behooves the authors of such books to say something new and different. They can't just tell us about the endowment effect and handing out mugs, or about making 401(k) enrollment the default. Lots of people have trod this ground, and I doubt that anyone's going to do it better than Thaler and Sunstein did in Nudge, or than Kahneman and Tversky did in Choices, Values, and Frames.

Popularizers are always good, but again we have to compare any behavioral-economics popularizer to Nudge; it's plenty popular, written with great energy, and moreover written by one of the great fathers of the field. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified to write such a book than Thaler.

Peter Ubel's Free-Market Madness wants to go beyond the Nudge fellows, and I think that's where it goes astray. The Nudge guys, you may remember, describe themselves as `libertarian paternalists': they believe in the power of markets, but at the same time they realize that policymakers have to make choices about other people's lives. I mean `policymaker' broadly: when the HR administrator at your company decides whether to automatically enroll employees in the company's 401(k), she's making policy. Defaults matter very much. Almost none of Nudge is controversial, inasmuch as it just recommends flipping some defaults, but always allowing people the option of flipping back.

Professor Ubel is more controversial in Free-Market Madness. When people might systematically make bad choices about their own lives, he sees no problem in more-forcibly trying to sway them to the right side.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
America loves its free market heroes, as Peter Ubel admits. Just think of the West Berlin Coca-Cola manager who, on hearing that the Berlin Wall was coming down, headed off to the barrier with cases of the soft drink and offered a bottle to every East German crossing the border. Ubel doesn't for a second doubt that that act was a triumph for free markets and for Coca-Cola - but was it logical or in the best interests of the rest of society? "Was Coca-Cola the very best thing that the (free market's) invisible hand could bring to people just escaping from decades of communism? And should we, then, celebrate the increase in tooth decay and diabetes diagnoses now spreading through Eastern Europe?" In a perfectly free market, obesity, dying of emphysema after a lifetime of smoking or failing to save a dime for retirement may be seen as completely logical choices by libertarian economists and policymakers. But sometimes the best outcomes for free markets are not the best outcomes for the people within those markets - and then what do we do?

The factors that lead to such illogically logical (or logically illogical?) decisions are the focus of Peter Ubel's accessible, lively and very important discussion of the emerging field of behavioral economics. While there are numerous other books out there on the topic, this serves as a much-needed primer for readers who aren't ever going to read the scholarly works on the subject and who prefer a solid introduction to the topic itself before delving into policy issues that flow from it. The `what to do' element is the weakest portion of the book, but the rest is a fascinating introduction to the nature of the conundrums that policymakers face.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Stick-In-The-Mud on February 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is a glaring example of why Psychology is a long long way from being a science in the same sense as chemistry, physics or geology. The shoddy methodology of experimental design aside, his very argument: that the individual is irrational and thus easily manipulated by the marketer, seems to have missed the obvious. Who controls the state? The very irrational creatures who are manipulated by the market. Is it possible that these people could also be manipulated by group thinking, ideology, fashion, ambition, greed, envy, etc. So if I don't know better, hopefully someone or some group can better direct by desires, ambitions and behaviors? The whole point of an open and free society is that, even as imperfect creatures, we are ultimately responsible for our successes and our failures. We learn from our mistakes, we correct what we do wrong and improve our situation or we do nothing and suffer the consequences until, if ever, we learn our lesson. A heavy handed irrational state would, as it always has, make an imperfect situation much worse.
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32 of 46 people found the following review helpful By D. W. MacKenzie on January 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book has a certain superficial appeal. Much of what Ubel says is true. We are not 100% rational. We do not always engage in rational choice. We often act according to habits or "psychology". We do all make mistakes, and will sometimes be fooled by even simple tricks, and can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We are not completely rational in our private lives.

The problem with this book is that its arguments are based on the fallacy of false comparisons. Udel claims that markets work only under conditions of strict rationality. Then after holding markets to an impossible standard, he assumes too easily that government can do better. The author thinks that government must regulate our actions to counter our irrational tendencies. The problem with this claim is that government officials are just other people who are at best no more rational than the rest of us. We do not suddenly become more rational when we enter public life. We do not become more rational when we become public officials. We do not become more rational when we enter voting booths.

Some of the author's complaints are based more on opinion than fact. Most people do like things that are unhealthy. This is not evidence of irrationality on the part of the public. This is evidence of arrogance and intolerance on the part of Udel. Most people simply enjoy some things that are unhealthy or dangerous. But according to Udel not enough people want to live according to his standards for health, so we must be coerced into conforming to his norms through taxation and regulation! Personally I find his arrogance revolting.

Free markets do not require 100% rationality or high intelligence. On the contrary, free markets are good because they make good use of our limited rationality and intelligence.
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