Choice Architecture and Paternalism

I’m trying to get clear on what Sunstein and Thaler mean, and it’s not easy, since they basically make up their own private language, and then act puzzled by the idea that some people might be a little confused by what they have in mind.

So a “choice architect” is basically anyone that organizes “the context in which people make choices.” This is so immensely broad as to be almost useless.

If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company health plan, you are a choice architect. If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect. If you are a salesperson, you are a choice architect.

And if you invite people to a party where alcohol is available, the music is bumpin’, and the lights are low, you are choice arcitecht. Everyone is a choice architect some of the time.

So what’s the relationship between ‘choice architect’ and ‘paternalist’? Is everyone a paternalist, too? It looks like it. According to S&T:

The paternalistic aspect [of libertarian paternalism] lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects [i.e., everybody] to try to influence people’s behavior ino order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. … In our understanding, a policy is “paternalistic” if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves. [Emphasis theirs.]

The designers of the user-friendly iPod, whom S&T tag as “choice architects,” presumably leave iPod users better off by their own lights, and therefore count as nudging libertarian paternalists. And who’s against usable interface design?! And if the host of a party turns down the lights, that‘s paternalistic choice architecture if it influences some of the guests’ behavior in a way that makes them better off, as judged by themselves.  This all very weird.

First, this has nothing to do with ‘paternalism’ as English speakers use the word. On their definition, giving someone accurate and easy-to-follow directions to the nearest gas station is paternalistic. But it isn’t, so they are using words wrong. To put it another way, S&T imply that it is not possible to provide helpful guidance to another person without being paternalistic. But it is possible. So they’re speaking literal nonsense. QED.

Another tack… They express a sufficient condition for paternalism here. They don’t say a policy or action isn’t paternalistic if it doesn’t makes people better off by their own lights, but the suggestion of an “only if” hangs out there, and I think they want it hanging out there. Paternalism is nice! Paternalism cares about getting people’s buy-in. Except… it doesn’t. The attempt to make you better off by my lights, not yours, is what a competent English speaker has in mind if she accuses me of being “paternalistic” — and that’s whether or not she assumes paternalism necessarily involves coercion, an assumption S&T call a “misconception”, despite the fact that most dictionaries and the history of Western thought generally insists on conceiving it that way. If you open up the little box that is the concept ordinarily expressed by the English word ‘paternalism’, you will find indifference to the endorsement or buy-in of those “influenced” by paternalistic efforts. But if you learned the meaning of the word from S&T, you’d think that was wrong!

The tone in Nudge is chummy and agreeable and sunnily ameliorist. Which makes you feel a bit like an axe-grinding killjoy bent on hair-splitting “semantics” when you insist on pointing out that they spend the entire book more or less inverting the normal meaning of certain politically-loaded words. But I really do insist on pointing it out, because these brilliant guys are native English speakers and they’ve got to know that the meanings of words matters. So you’re left wondering why they are so determined to play dumb about their own language.

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