Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism” is really just paternalism

by on April 7, 2008 · 617 comments

Cass Sunstein has another new book out. The University of Chicago law school professor is so insanely prolific that it seems every time I finish reading one of his new books, a new title by him lands in my inbox. Seriously, either this man does not sleep or he is a robot. Anyway, his latest book is entitled, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and it was co-authored with Richard Thaler, an economist also residing at Univ. of Chicago.

Their thesis is that people sometimes make bad choices (no duh, right?), but that with a little helpful prodding (i.e., “the nudge”) we mere mortals might make better decisions. The way we get there is through what they call “libertarian paternalism.” Here’s how their official book page describes it:

Every day, we make decisions on topics ranging from personal investments to schools for our children to the meals we eat to the causes we champion. Unfortunately, we often choose poorly. The reason, the authors explain, is that, being human, we all are susceptible to various biases that can lead us to blunder. Our mistakes make us poorer and less healthy; we often make bad decisions involving education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, the family, and even the planet itself.

Thaler and Sunstein invite us to enter an alternative world, one that takes our humanness as a given. They show that by knowing how people think, we can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society. Using colorful examples from the most important aspects of life, Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate how thoughtful “choice architecture” can be established to nudge us in beneficial directions without restricting freedom of choice.

OK, so the obvious question here is, who, exactly, is doing the “nudging.” And who died and made them the nudgers in chief?!

Like so much of what Cass Sunstein writes, there is a subtle elitism at work here. But he often tries to dance around it or pretend it isn’t really elitist at all. In Nudge, that really comes through when he and Thaler use the oxymoron “libertarian paternalism” to describe what they are proposing. What a brilliant rhetorical tactic! Just add the term “libertarian” to your generally elitist proposal and thereby make the poison.. er, uh, medicine easier to swallow!

But, at least to my ears, “libertarian paternalism” as they describe it sure sounds a heck of lot like ol’ fashion paternalism. Consider these examples they provide to the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam:

Carefully designing choices seems to matter most in domains where human nature causes people to make mistakes that a rational machine might avoid. Investing for retirement is one of those domains. Getting divorced is another.

“Most couples that get married do not have prenups because they think the probability of a divorce is zero,” Thaler said. “We know the probability of a divorce is around 50 percent.” Because both people in a divorce can see themselves as the aggrieved party, couples often fight protracted battles, Thaler said. Many more couples would reach amicable settlements, he said, if all states had default divorce guidelines. Anyone considering a divorce could still go to court, but most people would choose the default option.

Setting up default choices is one of the recurring themes of “Nudge,” because a lot of research shows that people are powerfully influenced by default options. When new employees are told that retirement accounts will be started for them unless they object, for example, most sign up cheerfully. When told that the accounts will not be started unless they opt in, most employees do not sign up because not having the account is then the default choice.

Default marriage and investment guidelines? If it’s the government who is setting such rules, then I don’t see anything libertarian about it. It’s blatantly paternalistic. Again, who decides? That’s the key question here. It’s one thing for private organizations to suggest or even set “defaults” since there will always be alternative options to which people can turn. Not so when the rules are set from above. When set from above, such default rules can lock society into inefficient regulatory systems or subsidization schemes.

Or sometimes they are just elitist and silly. Consider some of the other examples of “nudges” they propose:

  • “Dollar a day” program, by which teenage girls with a baby receive a dollar for each day in which they are not pregnant.
  • Laws enabling gambling addicts to put themselves on a list that bans them from entering casinos or collecting gambling winnings.
  • Motorcycle helmet laws that allow riders to go without a helmet but only if they get special licenses. To qualify for the license, a rider would have to take an extra driving course and submit proof of health insurance.
  • And my personal candidate for most absurd… “The Civility Check,” which Sunstein and Thaler describe as their “favorite proposal.” They argue that:

The modern world suffers from insufficient civility. Every hour of every day, people send angry emails they soon regret, cursing people they barely know (or even worse, their friends and loved ones). A few of us have learned a simple rule: don’t send an angry email in the heat of the moment. File it, and wait a day before you send it. (In fact, the next day you may have calmed down so much that you forget even to look at it. So much the better.) But many people either haven’t learned the rule or don’t always follow it. Technology could easily help. In fact, we have no doubt that technologically savvy types could design a helpful program by next month.

We propose a Civility Check that can accurately tell whether the email you’re about to send is angry and caution you, “warning: this appears to be an uncivil email. do you really and trulywant to send it?” (Software already exists to detect foul language. What we are proposing is more subtle, because it is easy to send a really awful email message that does not contain any four-letter words.) A stronger version, which people could choose or which might be the default, would say, “warning: this appears to be an uncivil email. this will not be sent unless you ask to resend in twenty-fourhours.” With the stronger version, you might be able to bypass the delay with some work (by inputting, say, your Social Security number and your grandfather’s birth date, or maybe by solving some irritating math problem!).

When I read that one, I did the same sort of ‘did-he-really-just-say-that’ double-take that I did when I read Sunstein’s proposal in his 2000 book that we need mandatory “electronic sidewalks” for cyberspace that would require “partisan” websites to run material from opposing groups (i.e., a massive “Internet Fairness Doctrine” regulatory regime, if you will). Could there be anything more elitist than that? Well, this “Civility Check” certainly might fit the bill. Look, I agree that many insulting things are said online every day, but does that mean we should have the equivalent of an automated digital nanny issuing warnings to us before we can send any e-mail? Who sets the rules regarding civility? Will the system understand sarcastic talk among chums? Will we be able to override it without inputing personal information or solving math problems, like they suggest?

It’s all just so absurd and horrendously elitist. And thankfully I don’t have a civility check system running on my machine right now so I can immediately post that thought!

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