Like it or not, we need a ‘nudge’ to make bet­ter choices

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - MARK KINGWELL

TheNo­bel Prize for eco­nomics, like its sub­ject, runs on con­tro­versy. You won’t find here the heated de­bates about whether Bob Dy­lan is re­ally a writer, but many lau­re­ates – New York Times columnist Paul Krug­man is one – arouse as much ire as ad­mi­ra­tion. Econ­o­mists are like me­dieval the­olo­gians, com­ing to men­tal blows over how many an­gels can dance on the head of a pin.

The lat­est win­ner, the Univer­sity of Chicago’s Richard Thaler, is a case in point. With col­league Cass Sun­stein, a pro­lific ju­rist and for­mer White House “reg­u­la­tion czar,” he pop­u­lar­ized the no­tion of “choice ar­chi­tec­ture,” oth­er­wise known as a nudge. In the 2008 book Nudge: Im­prov­ing De­ci­sions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, they ar­gued that govern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to cre­ate mech­a­nisms by which ci­ti­zens will make bet­ter choices.

The mo­ti­va­tion here is ob­vi­ous: We hu­mans are not very good choosers, even when it comes to our own wel­fare. For ex­am­ple, many peo­ple, through lazi­ness or con­fu­sion, make bad de­ci­sions about their retirement sav­ings. So there should be manda­tory plan con­tri­bu­tions, with opt-out clauses. Like­wise or­gan­do­na­tion schemes for driv­ers, which ought to op­er­ate in re­verse of the cur­rent norm: You must ac­tively choose not to do­nate. More mun­dane ex­am­ples in­clude the ev­ery­day hi­lar­i­ties of cell­phone au­to­cor­rect (which reg­u­lates the lan­guage we type) or a mea­sure di­rected at peo­ple who over­load and overeat in fast-food restau­rants. Elim­i­nate trays in th­ese eater­ies and you will cut down on both waste and waist­lines. Ev­ery­body wins!

Nudg­ing is not al­ways about mak­ing things bet­ter for bodies and the body politic, of course. Those su­per­size-me of­fers at burger chains or the pric­ing of soft drinks at the movies are ex­am­ples of choice ar­chi­tec­ture, too. So are credit cards, neg­a­tive-op­tion billing plans for util­i­ties and TV chan­nel bundling.

Crit­ics find the very idea of pro-wel­farist nudg­ing pa­ter­nal­is­tic, and in­deed the view has come to be called “lib­er­tar­ian pa­ter­nal­ism.” This is govern­ment reg­u­la­tion of what many peo­ple con­sider a ba­sic po­lit­i­cal free­dom: the abil­ity to choose what­ever I want, in­clud­ing things that may be bad for me – and maybe the world.

There is no such thing as an un­struc­tured choice, of course, any more than there are un­reg­u­lated mar­kets. The ques­tion is al­ways: Who ben­e­fits from the given ar­chi­tec­ture or scheme of reg­u­la­tion? Prof. Thaler and Prof. Sun­stein think good ar­chi­tec­ture means greater wel­fare for ev­ery­one. When they sail close to old-fash­ioned Big State elitism, as when they sug­gest more so­phis­ti­cated choosers should help out those less savvy, they can al­ways fall back on opt-out clauses.

But it’s not that sim­ple. A more search­ing cri­tique of “nudge-world,” as po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Jeremy Wal­dron called it, is that it com­pro­mises au­ton­omy and dig­nity, not just sim­ply free­dom of choice. Even when we know that choices are struc­tured, whether by well-mean­ing state agen­cies or ra­pa­cious mar­ket­ing com­pa­nies – like the ones who op­posed the so-called Big Gulp ban on over­sized soft drinks – we still feel that the ex­pe­ri­ence of free­dom is ba­sic to self­hood.

On this view, we are di­min­ished when we are guided, like rats, to­ward the good wel­fare cheese in the so­cial maze. Nudg­ing is a sub­tle ver­sion of the charge that af­flicts all util­i­tar­ian so­cial ar­range­ments – namely, that they don’t show re­spect for per­sons.

A good point, and yet the cen­tral prob­lem re­mains. We need ex­ter­nal struc­tures to make things func­tion, not only be­cause we are of­ten ir­ra­tional choosers but be­cause we are of­ten ac­tively bad peo­ple. In­sist­ing on un­fet­tered choice is like say­ing we should all be play­ing bumper cars at the car­ni­val when what we re­ally need are speed lim­its and traf­fic laws. (This strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for cur­rent “de­bates” about free speech.)

So, re­sent them as much as we like, nudges aren’t go­ing any­where. They are as old as barter and as tricky as sta­tis­tics or three-card monte. The pathos here be­longs to the hu­man con­di­tion it­self. Maybe we should as­pire to be bet­ter choosers, but it’s so much work. Why not let some wonk’s choice ar­chi­tec­ture do the think­ing for me, as long as I feel free?

In the end, nudg­ing high­lights our in­ter­nal tan­gles con­cern­ing de­sire about de­sire. We might wish we were bet­ter, more au­ton­o­mous and dig­ni­fied selves – but maybe not to­day. To­day, ar­chi­tects, I just want to fill my tray.

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