Friday, May 16, 2008


There's a new book in town called Nudge. It's based on improving decisions about health, wealth, and way of someone else's decisions and not your own. The premise of this book is a sort of "libertarian paternalism" (huh?).

According to authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, you - the average person, if that is what you are - are incapable of making good choices and, therefore, some elite group of folks who are far smarter than you should technocratically employ the best choice for you, hence the "paternalism" aspect of this whole thing.

Where the so-called libertarianism comes into play is that these choices, be they personal, social, financial, etc (an endless list, really), are structured in a way that you are free to choose against them.

You might want to pay attention (which is exactly how "nudging" would fail to work) because this concept is getting big. A lot of people from many different walks of life are taking notice of it, from behavioral economics (where it originated from) to presidential politics.

That's right, at least one presidential candidate - Barrack Obama - is very much on board with "nudging" because the authors of Nudge are also informal advisers to Obama himself! If Obama becomes President, we might have some "nudging" coming our way.

Clinton seems more disposed to mandates (for example, her mandated health care plan vs. Obama's non-mandated health care plan [unless you are unfortunate enough to be a business owner]). McCain's policies seem less mandating, unless you are unfortunate enough to live in another country where McCain's America will reshape it as he sees fit.

Back to the topic at hand, what is nudging, specifically? Well, nudging is about "steering" or "guiding" someone to make a specific choice, usually on a subconscious level, without forcing them to make that choice.

It deals with things like automatically enrolling an employee in a 401K with the option to disenroll. Studies show that if someone is not enrolled with the option to enroll, very few people actually choose to enroll, whereas very few people choose to disenroll if they are automatically enrolled to begin with.

Another example is putting healthy food in a more prominent view at a cafeteria compared to deserts, so that someone is more likely to choose the healthy food instead of unhealthy food. Or, narrowing the lines on a street to be closer together in an area that is potentially dangerous such as a curve, so as to give the appearance of moving faster which causes the brain to think you need to slow down.

This concept is paradoxically intriguing, to say the least.

For example, how can anyone support freedom and also support elitists subconsciously nudging you towards choices they think is best, which is nearly the same thing as subliminal brainwashing?

Yet, how can anyone support freedom and be against something that always allows for the freedom to choose anything else, unlike subliminal brainwashing (and mandates, for that matter)?

Top that off with the fact that several of these "nudges" are nudges that could simply improve safety (the slowing down around the curve, for example), which is difficult to argue as a bad thing, yet many of such nudges could be questionable because they deal with people's finances (the 401K, for example).

Unparadoxically, the questions that I would like to see considered are these:

Doesn't making so-called "wrong" choices offer us the ability to learn how to make "good" choices more often? If we are nudged in a manner that lessons the chance of us making wrong choices, will it take us longer to learn the ability to make good choices for ourselves - the good choices our elitists have supposedly already learned? Will we learn at all?

And, in a world where we are already drowning in persuasion, whether by political ideologies, parties, platforms, stump speeches, big media pundits, religion, philosophies, and commercial marketing all trying to shape our opinions and choices, do we really need any more "nudging"?

One thing could be certain: All of this might be a perfect example for why the practice of independent thinking, free of any persuasion except freedom itself, would be beneficial to anybody.


¡Benjaminista! said...

I am intrigued by this new book, because it seems to address my main concern with libertarianism: an overly optimistic view of human nature. Of course there is an inherent danger of ideological agendas overtaking the seemingly pragmatic agenda behind nudging, but it's about time there were some legitimately new ideas floating about the political sphere.

D.K. said...

I agree that we need new ideas. Personally, I would like to see more ideas formulated around conflict resolution, so as to help deal with everyone's differences that result from a free country, thus helping freedom in the long-run.

Human nature is certainly not perfect, but do you really want someone shaping your choices for you because of a few bad apples? Even if the majority of people were bad apples, is it fair that someone like yourself who is not a bad apple be subjected to such manipulation? Or, are you one of those bad apples?

The only saving grace with Nudging is its capacity to allow for an "out", which keeps freedom alive, to an extent.

My concern is that I question where it could go from there. In other words, if we allow that much control by the government to creep into our lives, even if it's not complete control, what might be next? That's the thing about authoritarianism. When you give it an inch, it usually takes several miles and never stops. Any glance at history usually shows this.

As well, as I already mentioned in my post, what about improving human nature? Don't we improve ourselves by learning? Isn't one of the ways we learn by making mistakes? If we have policies that "protect" us from making any potential mistake, will we ever truely learn for ourselves? How did those who think they know best learn? Yes, we might be allowed "another option", but not everyone will choose it.