When Nudge Comes To Shove

Posted on Wed 08/21/2013 by


20080408_cline-e_crBy Edward Cline ~20130819_davidbrooksNYT_large

In my past column, “Nudging Us to Serfdom,” I wrote that on January 30th, Maxim Lott of Fox News reported:

The federal government is hiring what it calls a “Behavioral Insights Team” that will look for ways to subtly influence people’s behavior, according to a document describing the program obtained by FoxNews.com. Critics warn there could be unintended consequences to such policies, while supporters say the team could make government and society more efficient.

David Brooks of the New York Times (pictured at right) on August 8th entered the “nudging” fray with his own mild-mannered perspective, “The Nudge Debate,” on whether or not the government should “nudge” Americans to adopt accepted behavior as defined by, well, the government, advocacy groups, and “public-spirited people” with influence in Washington D.C.

I say “mild-mannered” because to read his op-ed, you would get the impression that he thinks the semi-subliminal autosuggestions, and some of them not so subliminal, promoted by government really aren’t so insidious or bad. The government may or may not know best, but its intentions are benign. You would turn the page thinking he could perhaps be talked out of his wussily worded position on Cass Sunstein-caliber “nudging.”

Mark Tapson of FrontPage, in his August 14th “The Soft Totalitarianism of Nudging,” more or less “bitch-slaps” Brooks for having endorsed the whole idea, commented:

Brooks looks to saviors he calls “public spirited people” to design ways to rescue us from our incompetence and sloth. These betters of ours are designing “choice architectures” that guide us, like cattle, in the direction of what the left deems to be the proper moral and societal choices. To apply this theory to policy-making, the public spirited people in the Obama administration recently announced the creation of a “Behavioral Insights Team.”

Tapson summarizes the Brooks perspective:

“These days,” Brooks concludes, “we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.” Actually, what Americans need is less condescension and suffocating control from arrogant nanny-state elitists like Obama, Sunstein, and Brooks, and more freedom to exercise our individual rights and personal choices.

The last thing Brooks, Obama, Sunstein and other ambitious “people managers” would want to be called is “totalitarians.” After all, some of them have even read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. They suspect, but do not dwell on the possibility, that “some modest paternalism” is inherently the parent of immodest, total control. Once established, it knows no bounds. They suspect the ultimate consequences of such “benign” despotism, but do not identify them. They do not wish to see the naked core cause of all their condescending “humanitarian” proclivities. Because that is where a closer examination of their premises would take them.

All “soft” totalitarians are walking embodiments of Doran Gray, and the essence of their “souls” is not hidden in a locked attic beneath a dust cloth, but in a lightless, dank cellar. They are vampires, and fear the light.

Yes, Tapson is right. What Americans need is less condescension and suffocating controls from the likes of Obama, Sunstein, and Brooks – to name but a few in a legion of such arrogant elitists. But individual rights and personal choices are precisely what they are the enemies of.

Let’s examine Brooks’ op-ed in some detail. He writes:

….[P]eople are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.

Let’s take it for granted that Brooks isn’t speaking for himself, though I am of the opinion that he is mentally lazy, for otherwise, like “economist” Paul Krugman, he wouldn’t make such blatantly foolish statements. Who determines what is a “long-term benefit”? Or a “short-term pleasure”? Congress? Consensus? The AMA? Popular opinion? What risks are worth calculating? And whose are they? What does Brooks mean when he says “we’re mentally lazy”?

We make decision-making errors when thinking in our own language that we don’t make when thinking in another language. When asked to thin in a second language, we’re forced to put in a little more mental effort.

Whatever that means. Perhaps it means, for example, that when we slid into our cars, our purpose is to go somewhere and return safely and sound. That’s our “own language.” Perhaps by the “second language” he means the government’s mandating strapping on a seat belt. Or buying lead-free gas.

As these cognitive biases have become better known, public spirited people naturally want to design ways to help us avoid them. In 2009, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein published a book, called “Nudge,” on how government and other organizations could induce people to avoid common errors. Last year, Sunstein gave the Storrs Lectures at Yale on the topic, which will soon be published as a book called “Nanny Statecraft.” Last month, the Obama administration announced that it is creating a new team to explore applications of this sort of empirical research to policy-making.

There’s an interesting concept: “cognitive biases.” What it means is that men’s cognitive faculties are flawed, subjective, and highly prejudicial. Thus Brooks reveals here that he is WUI, that is, writing under the influence of Immanuel Kant, who alleged that our minds cannot really see or know reality, but only a filtered and highly unreliable “impression” of it.   Ergo, the reality we perceive is deceptive, optional, and malleable. It can be or mean whatever one’s “biases” wish it to mean, however it imperfectly comports with our prejudicial “biases.”

But are a government bureaucrat’s “cognitive biases” more equal than others’? He cannot prove it – reality is unknowable – but your intake of more calories than what his scientists say is good for you empowers him to “nudge” you to consuming calorie-reduced foods, because a “healthy you” is an intrinsic value. To whom? To him. How does he know this? He doesn’t. It’s just official policy. There’s no use in resisting a government policy. Just do it.

Brooks’ notion of “cognitive biases” puts him in the dubious company of Paul Krugman, whose August 15th New York Times column, “Moment of Truthiness,” dwells on how “others” manipulate reality to make us think wrong things. Writing about the conflicts between voters and politicians, about misinformation and the lies and half-lies of sitting politicians and bureaucrats, he notes that

We…all know that that reality falls far short of the ideal.

Or did Krugman mean that the ideal falls short of reality? Or of the reality?  Reality is optional? Kant said so. “Truthiness” means that there might be an element of truth in an assertion or observation, but we’ll never know. To Krugman, a Nobel Prize recipient for his economic flights of fantasy and advocacy of inflationary policies to spur economic growth (the “Keynesian resurgence”), reality is discretionary.

If an economy is “mired” in the consequences of past reckless fiscal policies, the solution is to adopt even more reckless fiscal policies. After all, reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Lots of people running around hectically performing pointless make-work and being paid by the siphoning off of actual economic values is the way to go. If we can’t know reality, we can fake it.

Krugman’s “ideal,” however, the one that is too good for reality, is a virtual world non-stop Looney Tunes cartoon, with Krugman in the role of Foghorn Leghorn.

But, enough of Brooks’ brain-brother.

We’re entering the age of what’s been called “libertarian paternalism.” Government doesn’t tell you what to do, but it gently biases the context so that you find it easier to do things you think are in your own self-interest.

Context biasing. There’s another wussy term for changing the cognitive filters. There’s not much contextual difference between a mugger telling you, “Your money or your life,” and if you think it’s in your self-interest to resist him, he will kill you and take your money anyway – and a government telling you, “File your 1040’s or we will destroy you,” and if you resist, it will put you in jail and take your money anyway. In both instances, it is values – your money – that is the object of theft, together with your future, which is held hostage.

So, the “soft” biasing in the first instance is in giving the mugger the money and preserving your life; in the second instance, it is complying with myriad government diktats to avoid fiat punishment, diktats ranging from paying “your” taxes, conforming to environmental regulations, not smoking, using seat belts, eating “healthy” foods, enrolling in Obamacare, and in general obeying all the prison rules, and preserving your life. And if you are in business, it is a matter of complying with hundreds if not thousands of regulations that govern manufacturing and services and other tradable values, such as various kinds of insurance.

The truth is that virtually all government policies today are reducible to crude criminality. All employ the element of force or threatened force via fraud or extortion.

Brooks gives us samples of his caliber of “nudging”:

Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise. Government could crack down on companies that exploit common cognitive errors to induce you to pay more for your mortgage, bank account, credit card or car warranty. Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.

Brooks of course would argue: Well, a nudge-happy government wouldn’t force you to do these things. Adhering to the “superior” value established by government is strictly a “voluntary” choice. And so he covers his bases this way:

But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.

If hell is created by “good intentions,” then “moderate” paternalism leads to such things as the regulatory behemoth Environmental Protection Agency, which began as a miniscule offshoot of the conservation movement. The proposed EPA budget for 2014 entails spending billions of dollars. Brooks concedes that policymakers are governed by their own “cognitive biases,” but their “meaning well” is justified by their ends, not necessarily by their “means.” The movement that began by advocating the saving of trees has spawned a gigantic bureaucracy that commands the saving of the planet.

Individuals may be imperfect decision-makers, but they still possess more information than faraway government rule-makers. If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.

In his single reality-based observation – in his first sentence – Brooks explodes the myth of a “planned,” “scientifically managed” economy. But then he qualifies it with the subtle suggestion that individuals “thinking for themselves” means thinking the way the government wishes us to think.

The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism. If companies are going to trick people into spending more on, say, bank overdraft fees, shouldn’t government step in to prevent a psychological market failure?

Brooks obviously doesn’t know his history, just as Barack Obama doesn’t know his deepwater Gulf ports. There are innumerable instances of “soft paternalism” morphing into “hard paternalism.” For example, Weimar Germany was a consequence of the Bismarckian “paternalism” of a welfare state, and the bloody contest for political power between the Communists and Nazis in the Weimar Republic itself paved the way for Nazi rule. The agrarian reformers of Tsarist Russia paved the way for totalitarian Communism and the Soviet Union.

Brooks is right: The role of government paternalism indeed is a philosophic question. But he is incapable of answering it because his woozy conception of it leads him to endorse such paternalism. To wit:

But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections.

All the “voluntary” options cited by Brooks are approved by the government or by one or another influential advocacy group. In Brooks’ shrunken universe of “concrete benefits,” organ donations, shunting junk food out of sight to a faraway corner, and guaranteeing one’s charitable giving are hands-on “empirically verifiable” imperatives, intrinsic in nature, and not to be questioned. He has no need for any “stinking” abstract theoretical objections.

I’d call it social paternalism. Most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good. To some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms, a preference for saving over consumption, a preference for fitness over obesity, a preference for seat belts and motorcycle helmets even though some people think it’s cooler not to wear them. In some cases, there could be opt-out provisions.

So, government paternalism is the same as “social” paternalism. Who establishes social norms and judgments? What does it mean for us to “be good”? Government should embody those norms and judgments, and allow individuals to “opt out” if their “wrong” biases urge them to.

And that’s when “nudge” escalates to “shove,” and out come the handcuffs wielded by the “public-spirited” wards of the “moderate” paternal state.

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Edward Cline is the author of the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and also of  Whisper the Guns and First Prize. His essays, books reviews, and other nonfiction have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other periodicals. He is a frequent contributor to Rule of Reason and The Dougout.

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