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.