The structure of a choice matters. For example, many employees have the option to enroll in a 401(k) plan, but they do not contribute. Even those who agree it would be in their interest to make contributions often fail to do so. A likely reason is inertia. Progressives like Cass Sunstein would turn this inertia to the employee’s advantage. They would restructure the choice by changing the default. Instead of having to opt in to a 401(k) plan, employees would be enrolled automatically. They could still opt out, if they acted. Otherwise, they would be “nudged” to save.
Sunstein believes public policy can be improved by a greater use of such “nudges.” After all, designing choices is already a common practice in our society. From cellphone companies to Herbalife distributors, many businesses have long understood that a customer’s choice can be altered by the framing of their options. Sunstein would apply similar techniques, but he would do so for public interest rather than private gain. When confronted with obstinate habits or a genuine lack of awareness, there may be some case for Sunstein’s paternalism. However, there is more to “solving social problems” than overcoming bias and correcting for ignorance.
Some of Sunstein’s critics, like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, can be easily dismissed. But liberal philosopher Jeremy Waldron is more compelling. In his recent essay “It’s All for Your Own Good,” Waldron marked the appropriate limits of engineering choice.
Sunstein’s paternalism raises issues of trust and competence. To merit our trust, the engineer’s preferences for our choices must be something we can accept. And agreeable intentions alone are never enough. The restructured choice must be a reliable means to the desired end. But according to Waldron, these issues are compounded by two deeper problems. One is the vanguard conceit:
As befits someone who was “regulation czar” in the Obama White House, Sunstein’s point of view is a rather lofty one and at times it has an uncomfortable affinity with what Bernard Williams once called “Government House utilitarianism.” Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.
For Sunstein’s idea is that we who know better should manipulate the choice architecture so that those who are less likely to perceive what is good for them can be induced to choose the options that we have decided are in their best interest. Thaler and Sunstein talk sometimes of “asymmetric paternalism.” The guiding principle of this approach
“is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.”
This is a benign impulse on their part, but it is not a million miles away from the condescension that worried Bernard Williams.
The second deep problem is dignity. By dignity, Waldron means “the sense of self-respect, an individual’s awareness of her own worth as a chooser.” He does not deny that our willed actions are often “flawed and misguided.” However, he is not impressed by Sunstein’s response to this concern. Waldron said:
He begins by coupling the objection about dignity with an objection about autonomy, the privileging of each individual’s independent control of her life. The two go together, says Sunstein, though he acknowledges that the complaint about dignity is the more fundamental of the two. Having said that, however, Sunstein seems happy to associate himself with those who maintain that dignity just equals autonomy or that if there is anything left out of that equation, it is not worth bothering with.
Sunstein’s second move is to equate autonomy and well-being (or, more crudely, “utility”—the economist’s word for the satisfaction of needs and wants). He toys first with the idea that autonomy is just a preference like any other. If people like choosing, he says, we can design environments in which they are forced to state a preference—no meal unless you order; no pension unless you opt in or opt out of a 401(k). I am afraid that’s a trivialization. Autonomy is not just one preference among others; it is a principle about how one’s preferences are pursued.
Eventually what we are told by Sunstein is that autonomy is just a surrogate for welfare—what people ultimately want is the promotion of their own well-being and it doesn’t really matter how that comes about. At best autonomy is a heuristic: “People speak in terms of autonomy, but what they are doing is making a rapid, intuitive judgment about welfare.” I must say that I find all of this remarkably tone-deaf to concerns about autonomy.
And allowing dignity to just drop out of the picture is offensive. For by this stage, dignity is not being mentioned at all. Sunstein does acknowledge that people might feel infantilized by being nudged. He says that “people should not be regarded as children; they should be treated with respect.” But saying that is not enough. We actually have to reconcile nudging with a steadfast commitment to self-respect.
Consider the earlier point about heuristics—the rules for behavior that we habitually follow. Nudging doesn’t teach me not to use inappropriate heuristics or to abandon irrational intuitions or outdated rules of thumb. It does not try to educate my choosing, for maybe I am unteachable. Instead it builds on my foibles. It manipulates my sense of the situation so that some heuristic—for example, a lazy feeling that I don’t need to think about saving for retirement—which is in principle inappropriate for the choice that I face, will still, thanks to a nudge, yield the answer that rational reflection would yield. Instead of teaching me to think actively about retirement, it takes advantage of my inertia. Instead of teaching me not to automatically choose the first item on the menu, it moves the objectively desirable items up to first place.
I still use the same defective strategies but now things have been arranged to make that work out better. Nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child. The people doing this (up in Government House) are not exactly using me as a mere means in violation of some Kantian imperative. They are supposed to be doing it for my own good. Still, my choosing is being made a mere means to my ends by somebody else—and I think this is what the concern about dignity is all about.
Choices, as Waldron said, “are always going to be structured in some manner, whether it’s deliberately designed or happens at random.” Waldron is not claiming it could be otherwise. Instead, he is offering a word of caution against technocratic hubris. His essay is a fine expression of what I mean by liberal, but not progressive.
UPDATE (October 2, 2014): Steven Poole wrote a smart variation on the same theme. Poole said, “if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”