Choice architecture: kind Nanny

I went to hear Patrick Basham speak at an IPA function yesterday on the insidious creep of the nanny state and associated infringement of personal liberties.  My guess is that the IPA will have the presentation on its website and I would highly recommend it.

In the Q&A, there was some discussion of the right’s capitulation to the nanny state, but cloaked in the language of nudging and – wait for it – governments providing “choice architecture”.  What? because the bureaucrats know what is in our interests better than we do?

I came across this piece in The Guardian, urging kind Nanny to get on board.  We just don’t like choice, evidently.  We are no good at choice, even if we can access all sorts of means of helping us – personal research, asking advice, using private intermediaries.  And we all discount the long term too much.

The reason I am posting this here is that this sort of approach is no less dangerous that the thought-police of the Left, who want to ban/tax everything they dislike.  Arguably, it is more dangerous because it initially seems quite soothing.  I understand that there is still a Nudge Unit operating in the Baird bureaucracy.  And David Cameron cannot get enough of this stuff.

Actually, one of the speeches that most riled me – EVA that is – was given by red Tory, Philip Blonde.  Be afraid, I say to fellow Cats.

Here is the piece from The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman:

Choice can be a mixed blessing – as you know if you’ve ever spent an evening browsing hundreds of titles on Netflix only to repair despondently to bed without watching a movie. One famous if controversial study found that people were much more likely to purchase a jar of jam when faced with a choice of just six flavors than with 24, which short-circuited their brains. Even if we overcome “analysis paralysis” and make a decision, other research suggests that we’ll be less satisfied with our choice when forced to pick from a larger range of options.

Yet in politics – and in American politics above all – choice remains an unquestionably positive thing. Sure, it might not always be feasible to allow people maximum choice among doctors, say, or schools; but even politicians who oppose the expansion of choice tend to insist they’re doing so reluctantly and out of necessity. All else being equal, choice is good; in a free society, citizens should have as much of it as they possibly can.

That’s a view so widely held that howls of outrage will surely greet Choosing Not To Choose, a new book by legal scholar and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein. He is, however, no stranger to howls of outrage: he was the co-author, with Richard Thaler, of 2008’s Nudge, which argued that governments could use insights from behavioral economics to steer people toward better decisions on health and personal finance. Glenn Beck called him “the most dangerous man in America”.

Sunstein and Thaler suggested that public officials and others in authority could (and should) become “choice architects” – for example by transferring a portion of a person’s paycheck into a savings account unless he or she actively opted out, or by requiring schools to put salads in easier reach than french fries at lunch. They called this “libertarian paternalism”. Nobody would be forced to save, or eat lettuce; their environments would simply be tweaked to make the wiser choice a little easier.

There are legitimate reasons to find the idea of the government micromanaging your choices a bit troubling, especially since a government could ultimately enforce its plans for your self-improvement via the courts, police or military. But there’s a problem with arguing that nudging fundamentally undermines freedom: “choice architecture” is always, inevitably all around us and influencing our behavior in countless ways of which we’re unaware. If you prohibit the mayor of New York from nudging people in the direction of smaller quantities of Coca-Cola, for example, you don’t leave New Yorkers in a state of perfect liberty, free to decide to drink however much they like. You just leave them to be nudged much more forcefully in the opposite direction by the multi-million-dollar advertising and sponsorship budgets of the soft drink industry, whose executives you can’t even vote out of office.

But in Choosing Not To Choose – despite his placatory tone throughout – Sunstein presses the argument further. Even if it were possible to make choices free of any undue influence, he maintains, it’s not necessarily freeing to do so. Time and attention are precious resources; if we were required to make choices about everything that might affect us, we’d be constantly stressed out of our minds.

Plus, the burden of choosing falls more heavily on some than on others. Sunstein quotes the economist Esther Duflo, who notes that one big advantage of being wealthy is the freedom not to have to make all sorts of choices – starting with basic spending trade-offs, such as whether to spend your limited income on healthy food or keeping up car payments:

Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

Besides, if it’s paternalistic for people in authority to make choices on my behalf, isn’t it also rather paternalistic for them to insist that I do the choosing, for my own good? “In nations that respect liberty, two things seem to be true,” Sunstein writes. “The first is that you get to choose. The second is that you have to choose.” He’s emphatic that he’s not recommending less choice rather than more. But he shows how the idea of choice is much more complicated than it seems. It’s always a matter of trade-offs – of costs and benefits – rather than an unalloyed good.

Sunstein’s compromise solution is something he calls “simplified active choosing”; institutions that are in a position to make choices for us, he says, should explicitly ask us whether we’d rather not choose: “Do you want to choose your own health insurance plan, or do you want to be defaulted into the plan that seems best for people in your demographic category?”

There are some dizzying possibilities here: instead of visiting the polls to vote in every election, would you prefer to record your choice of party once, then have your vote cast automatically for that party in every subsequent election until you changed your default? (Sunstein admits this in particular would be “odd and terrible”; in a democracy, the act of deciding to vote is simply too important.)

Technology makes matters more dizzying still. One central argument in favor of freedom of choice – usually associated with Friedrich Hayek – has always been that no central planner could ever know how to fulfill my preferences more effectively than me. But we’re not far from the day when Amazon, scrutinizing my purchasing history and that of thousands of others, could predictively send me products that would have a better chance of leaving me satisfied than if I chose them myself. My bank could surely already use data from my accounts, combined with findings from psychological research, to re-route funds from my account into savings schemes in the way most likely to lead to a happy retirement for people like me.

Would I really want to surrender that choice to someone else? On the other hand, do I really want to assume the responsibility for taking it myself, given how prone I know I am to short-term spending behaviors that don’t serve my long-term goals? Would it be more sinister to surrender that choice to government, or to a faceless banking corporation – and is either of those really worse than preserving my autonomy, yet experiencing a more miserable old age? I don’t know. That’s the problem with decisions: you have to make them.

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18 Responses to Choice architecture: kind Nanny

  1. Bruce of Newcastle

    There is a lot of truth in this hypothesis IMO. There is infinite complexity presented by 57 channels leading up to every election. So voters don’t bother thinking about stuff, its all too much, they retreat to tribalism and sheeplike following of the leader that makes the nicest noises.

    The internet, Twitter, Facebook, and smart phones have sucked the attention of lots of people away from substantive things to JPG’s of what their friends are eating. Faced with limited mental capacity for politics they go with their gut feelings. Inevitably this favours the party that is most comfortable lying. Which is the Left.

    The Greens also get a look in because they waft ethereal mother love to the voters, which is both a pack of lies and completely unachievable. But low information voters react to the emotional message, and do not now have the mental ability to sort lies from truth. That takes significant mental effort.

    Its probably an inevitable endpoint that democracy evenually leads to political senescence in an information poor society. Paradoxically we are information poor because there is so much information, and so much untruth, so the people now who aren’t interested just turn off and react with their hindbrain.

    Ben Franklin once said:

    “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.”

    We are getting close to this in Australia. Greece is already over this precipice.

  2. Rabz

    That’s the problem with decisions: you have to make them.

    With the emphasis on you – life is an IQ test, peoples.

    Anyone stupid enough to leave their choices in the hands of governments and/or bureaucrats will inevitably be no better off, no matter how stupid that individual may be.

  3. johanna

    The point is, every time we give away our choices in favour of simplicity (voting above the line being a classic example) we also hand over agency, often with unknown consequences.

    How many people who vote above the line know where their preferences are going? Bugger all, IMO. And that may decide the election.

    As for the alleged paralysis caused by choice, nonsense. We don’t stand on the kerb for half an hour weighing all the pros and cons of how and when to cross the road. We act quickly, based on experience. Most of us, when we go to the supermarket, ignore the clutter and grab the product we know does the job satisfactorily. That’s why the vast majority of new supermarket products fail.

    It’s a phony argument which is a proxy for opposing capitalism and choice in all its forms.

  4. That’s the problem with decisions: you have to make them.

    What a transparent euphemism for “we’re smarter than you, so let us make your decisions for you “. All they’ll achieve is a fatter populace like they did when they started dictating what we should and should not eat. Only this would end in no liberty for anyone but themselves. Arseholes!

  5. Ellen of Tasmania

    Would it be more sinister to surrender that choice to government, or to a faceless banking corporation?

    No brainer. Far more sinister to surrender to the one who carries the gun.

  6. Tim Neilson

    “If you prohibit the mayor of New York from nudging people in the direction of smaller quantities of Coca-Cola, for example, you don’t leave New Yorkers in a state of perfect liberty, free to decide to drink however much they like. You just leave them to be nudged much more forcefully in the opposite direction by the multi-million-dollar advertising and sponsorship budgets of the soft drink industry, whose executives you can’t even vote out of office.”
    Bullshit. There’s a thing called “competition”. John Sculley at Pepsi discovered that consumers would buy more total volume if the containers were larger, larger containers are cheaper per unit of volume, and other soft drink companies followed suit in a classic pricing/ market share fight. It started with Sculley and Pepsi working out what people would buy, not with Sculley and Pepsi deciding to make something that people didn’t want and then trying to brainwash them into buying it. The moment people developed a preference for smaller containers, shopkeepers wouldn’t waste valuable fridge space on larger containers, and the companies would be forced to gear production towards smaller containers in order to survive.
    If Bloomberg wanted to legislate to force companies to produce, and shopkeepers to stock, smaller containers, that would still be neo-fascist but would not greatly interfere with the consumer (unless the shop ran out of large containers with demand for them unfulfilled). However, there’s no need. Shops stock a range of sizes, and gradually drift towards having more of the ones consumers want.
    The difference is ultimately between the soft drink companies and shops saying “you can have it if you want it” and Bloomberg saying “you can’t have it because I don’t want you to have it”.

  7. wreckage

    Corporations can neither force nor nudge choice in the sense that governments do.

    This guy equates advertising to legislating. False equivalence by a long, long shot.

    There are NOT effectively infinite choices such that freedom of choice becomes illusory.

    Relying on a simplified choice system to “make healthy decisions for you” doesn’t work.

    For example, some people need a low-joule diet and would be assisted by moving to sugar substitutes, which I can’t digest and cause me substantial pain. A system that inflicts a monetary or time cost on perfectly capable people to change behaviour they are capable of managing, inflicts the same monetary and time costs on me for physical incapacities I cannot change.

    In any case “sugar is bad” is arbitrary. Sugar in excess of your daily kilojoule requirements is bad.

    Any change by inflicting costs on the able, inflicts those same costs on the unable, unwilling or disabled. Make walking to work “10% compulsory” for everyone, and the same cost is inflicted on the elderly, the infirm, the sick and injured.

    Make lentils 10% compulsory (for the betterment of fat people), and you make them 10% compulsory for me, which means, and I don’t want to shock you dear reader, extreme pain and shitting blood. To avoid that pain I have to pay that 10%. Of course, due to the various biological fuck-ups I endure, I am much less capable of meeting that cost than the stupid fat deadbeats it helps.

    Schooling people to believe that they can’t effectively choose, and must give up agency and cease self-care, is the kind of deeply dysfunctional thinking that, once instilled, takes mental health professionals years to erase.

    There is no point moving to an economy shaped by a deep understanding of human psychology, because doing so demonstrates a howling lack of said deep understanding.

  8. wreckage

    You just leave them to be nudged much more forcefully in the opposite direction

    Bullshit. There is no force – none.

  9. motherhubbard'sdog

    we all discount the long term too much

    And politicians and bureaucrats don’t?

  10. Rosalind

    Nanny’s cohorts include the box-checkers in every bureaucratic system. There’s an army of them everywhere waiting to take over our lives. If you’re approaching retirement age, be warned.

    Somewhere there’s a parade ground where Nanny’s RSMs drill the box-checkers. The SEALS in American Sniper are put through something similar. Purposeful compliance with the rules is the result.

  11. vlad

    And you can vote those executives out; buy some shares, become a shareholder and turn up at the AGM.

  12. vlad

    One of my occasional gripes is that you can’t vote celebrities out of office; eg Annabel Crabb.

    The most you can do is ignore them; or try to.

  13. Richard Quigley

    “Time and attention are precious resources; if we were required to make choices about everything that might affect us, we’d be constantly stressed out of our minds.”
    Excuse me, but do we not do this every waking minute of every day? Is not our ability to make choices about those things that affect us one of our key survival traits?
    “Choice Architects” Rubbish! Choice Ar&*H^les!

  14. Michaelc58

    So, in I Robot, this author sides squarely with the robots, no?

  15. Michaelc58

    Why the hell does everybody assume that governments are and will remain benevolent.
    Where is the historical evidence evidence to support this idea?
    Seems to me the majority of the world and majority of countries in the world even today are governed by despotic regimes, kept in check only by the presence of western example, and even that is crumbling.

    Some examples:
    North Korea has removed all choice highly successfully.
    Middle East governments have removed religious choice, sexuality choice, and choice of anything outside of Sharia very effectively. Some people are so happy with it, they blow themselves up in furtherance of it.
    Russia has removed journalist’s choice of material to publish – so much simpler now.
    The EU has removed the choice of work for young people through minimum wages and industrial laws.
    USA’s IRS has removed the choice of political organisations you can register without a full cavity audit.
    Oh, and of course Obama has reduced your choice of health insurer, for your convenience.

    Governments….reducing choice for your convenience.

  16. Pedro

    The Right’s capitulation to Nanny? The Right just has a different Nanny. The essence of conservatism is to conserve the status quo through restrictions.

    Freedom lovers are a fringe. Almost nobody supports social and economic freedom.

  17. JohnA

    Wreckage, you are still not there:

    “In any case “sugar is bad” is arbitrary. Sugar in excess of your daily kilojoule requirements is bad.”

    “Food intake in excess of your daily kilojoule requirements is likely to add to your stored body mass.”

    Anything more is moralising.

  18. wreckage

    Sure, but that’s another argument. A valid one, but not the one I wanted to address.

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