The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

When Nudge Comes to Shove


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 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 14thThe
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 opinon?
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” wardens of the “moderate” paternal
state.

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2 Comments

  1. revereridesagain

    "Public spirited people" is the high-sounding paternalist term for busybodies, manipulators, control freaks, the kind of parent you move to the other side of the country, or the world, to get away from, the kind of lover or spouse who gradually moves from nagging to open-handed slaps to closed-fist total control that would make an imam grin from ear to ear. Politicians and bureaucrats follow the same road from "nudges" to tyranny. None of these people does any of this on the basis of "good intentions", no matter how often they tell themselves and others that such are their motives.

  2. Tim C

    "on how government and other organizations could induce people to avoid common errors"

    Trusting – and depending on – government not being a common error??!!

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