More Thoughts on "Choice Architecture" and "Libertarian Paternalism"

In the comments below, Berger writes of my Nudge review:

this seems pretty caustic…especially when you seem to grant their central premise: there is no such thing as neutral choice architecture.

But who contests it? Constitutional design, law and economics, policy analysis, etc. all rest solidly on the idea that choices are responsive to features of the contexts of choice. Nothing interesting happens if you reclassify policy analysis as “choice architecture.” If you raise the expected cost of driving without a seatbelt, other things equal, you get less driving without a seatbelt. This is not groundbreaking, or even especially interesting. I could say with that the “choice architecture” of the U.S. mortgage and finance system led to the wreckage that is now piling up. But what would you learn by that?

Nor is it especially interesting –not to non-economists at least — that models of the behavior of fictional agents do not predict human behavior. It is interesting to use empirical psychology to refine the economist’s slogan that “people respond to incentives,” which of course is true, but underspecified. Nothing about the slogan tells you how people manage to define the set of options live to them at any given moment, or how they come to rank them. Simply learning more about mind and motivation can do a lot in helping us understand how people will tend to act in various kinds of contexts. Also, human beings are physical systems with bodies, so features of situations that seem irrelevant to “purely rational” evaluation will affect our choices. If you vary only how hungry, fatigued, or warm people are in otherwise identical situations, you will probably get differences in their choices. But we knew that.

If you gave a perfect, slambang sales presentation but didn’t clinch the deal because you forgot to provide a room with chairs for the fine folks from BizCorp to sit in, would you be perplexed? “But sitting down has nothing to do with whether Widgets 3.0 is the only way for BizCorp to save millions!” And people find it boring and taxing to fill out paperwork. Yes! So take that into account when thinking of how to help people do things that ordinarily require some paperwork on their part. But don’t call thoughtfulness or helpfulness paternalism, because it isn’t. It is thoughtfulness or helpfulness.

Not taking away people’s choices is “libertarian” in an attenuated sense. But not taking away people’s choices is also what it is to not be a paternalist. Insofar as you’re not taking away choices, you’re no paternalist. That’s just the way the words work!

Now, this can seem a lot trickier than it is if you are determined to look at things a certain way, and Sunstein and Thaler seem to be determined in precisely this way. They want to point out that there is a way you can subtly reshape people’s choices without ever coercively taking any choices away. But if this subtle reshaping can get the same effect the paternalist seeks by coercively lopping off choices, then why not just see this reshaping as a kinder, gentler brand of paternalism?

You see how that works? Start with a paternalist doing what he was always trying to do by taking away choices. Then show him a way of doing it without taking away choices. And then simply deny that the paternalist, qua paternalist, has thereby disappeared. A choice-preserving paternalist! Likewise, take a Catholic doing what she was always trying to do by means of the Pope, then show her a way of doing it without the Pope. Voila: an non-Papist Catholic!

You and I are speaking fondly under the stars. The warm breeze and my kind eyes make you think you might want to kiss me. Right as you lean in I mention that I bathe in goat’s blood. Insome sense I have just taken away one of your options. Kissing me has vanished from your feasible set, as far as you’re concerned. Suppose I have chosen to disgust you only because I care for you, but know in the end you’ll end up hurt and it will be better for you this way.  That makes me weird for sure, nice maybe, and a paternalist in the same way it makes me a humanitarian: not at all.

My complaint about Nudge is that what is most provocative about it is the way the authors misuse words, and what is most genuinely useful about it — suggestions for policy based on better empirical psychology — is pointlessly burdened with their linguistic shenanigans and  silly “beyond left and right” framing. Indeed, I agree that “choice architecture” — i.e., the idea that everything that affects choice affects choice — matters to choice, and that policy ideas reflecting more realistic behavioral assumptions are desirable. You’d have to be an idiot to deny it. But beyond availing ourselves of better psychology, there no notable methodological or ideological advance there.

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