Nudge: improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
(Yale University press, 304 pages, $26)
In a seminal 1962 episode of the Twilight Zone alien visitors enrapture humanity with platitudes about intergalactic fellowship, advanced-technology solutions to earth’s most intractable problems, and, finally, offers of an all-expense-paid trip to a utopia among the stars. By the time a skeptical cryptographer translates the extraterrestrials’ guidebook beyond its warm and fuzzy title, To Serve Man, and realizes it is a cookbook, not a socialist manifesto, hordes of human cattle have already schlepped willingly off to the great slaughterhouse in the sky.
That campy cautionary tale came to mind recently as I perused Nudge, a new book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein—of the University of Chicago and Harvard Law, respectively— in which the eminent professors argue for a more sophisticated, subliminal Nanny State led by a less draconian nanny. Or, as they frame it, “thoughtful ‘choice architecture’ can be established to nudge us in beneficial directions.”
This is not to accuse the authors, both informal advisers to Barack Obama, of surreptitiously selling cannibalistic recipes. If anything, Nudge reads like an innocuous attempt to cash in on popular Tipping Point/Freakonomics-style “transformative concept” books. Fear not, friends, you shan’t be eaten on the glorious planet Hope-monger. Yet “beneficial direction” manifestly lies in the eye of the beholder. After all, was it not most beneficial for the hungry alien to nudge his human wards skyward? When two men with significant voices in the national conversation commit to paper sentences like “Choosers are human, so designers should make life as easy as possible,” readers are left to wonder of what extraction our self-appointed “designers” consider themselves. The evolved elite? Benevolent herders?
Thaler and Sunstein prefer libertarian paternalists. They’ve come to influence, not decree, the pair admirably insist, even while remaining blissfully unaware that they’ve cut the heart out of the libertarian carcass they’re prancing around in. Sure, the authors cautiously acknowledge the virtues of school choice, tort reform, and non-authoritarian solutions to other social problems. Fantastic. Dreamily musing that a carbon tax might lead to “the funding of Social Security and Medicare, of the provision of universal health insurance,” however, is about as philosophically libertarian as positing, “When people have a hard time predicting how their choices will end up affecting their lives, they have less to gain by numerous options and perhaps even by choosing for themselves.” Which is to say, not very.
Libertarians who believe the tax system should not be used to redistribute wealth or that corporate managers’ paramount duty is to maximize profit for investors or that the government has no constitutional mandate for social engineering are dismissed by the authors as “ardent” or “extreme.” This only shows that these brilliant scholars, who begin sentences in Nudge with “As libertarians…” or some variation, have, bizarrely, no conception whatsoever of what constitutes mainstream—the term is employed lightly here—libertarian thought.
The explicit, if mostly rhetorical, support for freedom of choice is welcome, of course, and preferable to Clintonism, neo-New Dealism, etc. Without respect for those doing the choosing, however, the security of that freedom is tenuous at best. Individual liberty granted as a political herding tactic rather than out of philosophical conviction is doomed. How many nudges do you believe self-described paternalists will allow us to ignore before acting in what is so obviously our best interest? It’s a matter of disposition. There is a reason Milton Friedman called his book Free to Choose and not Less to Gain.
Granted, a private sector “nudge” is, indeed, non-coercive. Little decals of black flies in Amsterdam urinals, Nudge relates, have given men something to aim at, reducing “spillage by 80 percent.” Wonderful! This baby is on board. But public/ state “nudges”? That’s a different story. Thaler and Sunstein believe the government designing choice architecture is a good use of taxpayer funds. I disagree. The IRS is not known for relying on persuasion, thus I presume my participation/donation will be coerced. Coercion for my own good equals libertarianism? Sorry. Nein.
For authors with such a low baseline belief in individuals’ self-determinative ability—“Should pedestrians in London get hit by a double-decker bus to teach them to ‘look right’?” they snark at one point—Thaler and Sunstein are supremely confident of their ability as “choice architects” to properly guide our decisions from above. Nudge is sprinkled with the requisite examples of faux self- effacement and invocations of societal level “we,” as in: “We all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.” Hey, these guys feel our pain!
Nonetheless, the authors’ sense of elitism nevertheless seeps out occasionally, despite their best efforts. “If you want to nudge people into socially desirable behavior, do not, by any means, let them know their actions are better than the social norm,” the duo write, advising our societal vanguard on how to play our soft, pliable little brains like an orchestra of fiddles. Thaler and Sunstein dismiss fears of politically empowered nudgers slouching toward Oceania out of hand (“If our policies are unwise, then it would be constructive to criticize them directly rather than to rely only on the fear of a hypothetical slippery slope”), fretting instead over how the little people (“somewhat mindless, passive decision makers”) will react to nudges, warning that “choice architects” must understand how to “encourage socially beneficial behavior, and also how to discourage events like the one that occurred in Jonestown.”
Keeping our budding national cult away from fatty foods and saving for retirement without any neo-lemmings wandering off to the refrigerator for a cool glass of cyanide-flavored Kool-Aid is the cross choice architects must bear. What a portrait that paints of the average American.
So, tell us again, what do you mean we, Kemosabe?
In a strange twist of journalistic serendipity, I began reading Nudge the same week the simmering destructive campaign of my year-old pug Benny erupted into a merciless disembowelment of our sofa. My ever-charitable wife diagnosed this behavior as “separation anxiety,” and in search of a cure I purchased Paul Owens’s The Dog Whisperer.
Lo and behold, mesmerizing dogs isn’t all that different from nudging the human hoi polloi. Here’s Nudge, for example, on the war between our dual-personality inner selves, The Planner (“the Mr. Spock lurking within you”) and The Doer (“everyone’s Homer Simpson”): The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but must cope with the feelings, mischief and strong will of the Doer, who is exposed to the temptations that come with arousal.
And here’s The Dog Whisperer: From a dog’s perspective, there is no such thing as a problem behavior. He’s doing what he’s doing because it feels good.
Again, Nudge: Self-control issues are most likely to arise when choices and their consequences are separated in time.
The Dog Whisperer: In order to get the message across to [your dog], you have to give him your signal of approval virtually the exact moment he sits. If you walk into a room three seconds after your dog has eliminated on the carpet, there’s no use even commenting on it.…As far as he’s concerned, you’re yelling because of what he’s doing at that exact moment— lying quietly on the floor.
Nudge: The bottom line, from our point of view, is that people are, shall we say, nudge-able.
The Dog Whisperer: You can shape virtually any behavior you want from your dog, including wagging his tail at various speeds, a very fast or very slow sit, sneezing three times in a row, or nodding his head yes and no.
During a recent interview with Denver Magazine, Barack Obama admitted his two young daughters “definitely don’t think I’m a rock star” and that they so far had little interest in the presidential race. “Their main focus is getting a dog after the campaign.”
I see the potential for a real Obama family bonding experience: The girls can learn to train the pooch while watching Thaler and Sunstein—The Man Whisperers—teach Daddy how to properly train the nation.
Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.
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