Government

The Problem With Nudging People to Happiness

Cass Sunstein's latest book puts a lot of faith in the efficacy of government to structure our choices.

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On Freedom, by Cass R. Sunstein, Princeton University Press, 136 pages, $12.95

Just as a building has a structure that allows the people within it to pursue their own happiness without obstructing the movements of others, a free society has a structure defined by the natural rights of first possession, private property, freedom of contract, restitution, and self-defense. These rights—all of which can be loosely characterized as "property rights"—distinguish liberty from license. License is the freedom to do whatever you desire. Liberty is the freedom to do whatever you desire with what, according to these principles, is rightfully yours.

In the Hobbesian state of nature, liberty is conceived as the liberty do anything at all, including the freedom to use other people's bodies. So government is needed to limit this liberty to avoid life being solitary, nasty, and short. By contrast, the Lockean state of nature "has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions." Government, then, exists not to limit liberty but to protect it better than each of us can do on our own.

When speaking of freedom in the abstract, it is essential to know to which freedom one refers. The title of Cass Sunstein's small and provocative new book, On Freedom, is therefore ambiguous. Does he mean unrestricted freedom that must be shaped or limited by government? Or does he mean a liberty bounded by rights that government is tasked to secure?

Sunstein is a progressive liberal. He genuinely cares about individual freedom. But like all progressives, he thinks "we" can do better than merely protecting the rights of individuals and letting the spontaneous order of human actions develop from there. The best and the brightest should intervene to improve outcomes.

Sunstein's distinctive contribution concerns the nature of that intervention. Most progressives, like Hobbes, believe that freedom must be constrained by force to "make the world a better place." Indeed, many seem to believe that anything that is not prohibited by the state should be mandated. Sunstein, instead, has long favored "nudging" over jailing and fining. On Freedom is an accessible introduction to how he approaches social problems—and a constructive challenge for libertarians.

The book disclaims any effort to "explore the differences between 'negative freedom' and 'positive freedom';…make a final judgment about Mill's Harm Principle; or investigate the claim that property rights, conferred by the state, can be essential to freedom, or an abridgment of freedom." In short, Sunstein attempts to discuss "freedom" abstracted from the essential concepts that are necessary to govern its exercise. That's a big problem, though it does not render the book without value.

Sunstein effectively challenges us to consider how individuals can be made better off, by their own lights, not by coercing them in ways that violate their rights but by structuring their environment in ways that lead them to make the choices that will end up pleasing them the most. His approach builds on the insight that most decisions are already structured by the ways that options are presented to us. From grocery store layouts with end-cap specials to websites featuring seductive links and advertisements, we are constantly and inevitably being nudged in a thousand different directions. We're free to resist these nudges, but we usually do not. So, Sunstein proposes, we might as well think about how best to nudge people to make good choices.

One revealing example he offers is the "food pyramid" designed by the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA). The idea was to nudge people to exercise their freedom to make healthier dietary choices, with the assistance of (mandatory) nutritional information on all packaged foodstuffs. Here is the pyramid as it appears in the book:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

According to Sunstein, the problem with this pyramid is that it "is organized by five stripes. (Or is it seven?) What do they connote? At the bottom, you can see a lot of different foods. But it's a mess. Some of the foods appear to fall into several categories. Are some grains or vegetables?" For Sunstein, the obvious problem is that people "are unlikely to change their behavior if they do not know what to do." Thus, the government "consulted with a wide range of experts, with backgrounds in both nutrition and communication, to explore what kind of icon might be better." In 2011, they came up with this:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The plate "doesn't require anyone to do anything," Sunstein says. Instead, "it makes clear that if half your plate is fruits and vegetables, you'll be doing well, and if the rest of your plate is divided between rice and meat (or some other protein), you're likely to be having a healthy meal." What could go wrong?

But Sunstein starts his story in the middle, with the "new" food pyramid that was introduced in 2005. He neglects the original, promulgated by the USDA in 1992:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

That pyramid recommended seven servings of good old carbs such as bread, pasta, and potatoes for every three servings of protein. It lumped fats, oils, and salts together with sugars. (The latter, we now know, is made by your body from all the bread and pasta you're eating.) Unsurprisingly, because it was issued by a government agency, the content was heavily influenced by food industry groups. Many nutritionists now blame it for fattening Americans like cattle, leading to chronic obesity, diabetes, and possibly even an explosion of dementia. Oops.

Of course, the new high-protein, low-carb recommendations might be as wrong as the old low-fat, high-carb diets. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the new diet is right. (I'm now 30 pounds lighter because of it.) If so, generations of Americans—and the whole food industry—were "nudged" astray for decades to the detriment of their health.

What, Sunstein would respond, is the alternative? If choices are to be made, should they not be made with the best information currently at hand?

One obvious option is not to let a bigfoot like the Department of Agriculture do the nudging. Another would be to have more respect for spontaneous order, which in this case was the traditional American diet of meats, cheeses, and a side of veggies. Instead, we were urged toward a diet of partially hydrogenated fats as an alternative to supposedly unhealthy butter—"trans" fats that later were banned entirely.

"Let the market decide" is not necessarily a recipe for correct answers. But a decentralized order of freedom within the boundaries of our legally protected rights allows a diversity of choices from which better results can emerge "as if by an invisible hand." Knowledge can evolve instead of being stipulated by a Leviathan. Labeling is fine; consumers cannot identify for themselves what's put into processed food. But food recommendations—nudging—by enlightened experts empaneled by the government has been as likely to be wrong as to be right.

When I was a research fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, my office was next to Sunstein's, who was then in his first year of teaching. We became good friends. During one of our many conversations, I recall him asking what I would say if one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century turned out to be Jürgen Habermas and not Friedrich Hayek.

Since then, Sunstein has become a bigger fan of Hayek. In this book, he quotes the Austrian economist as saying that "the awareness of our irremediable ignorance of most of what is known to somebody [who is the chooser] is the chief basis of the argument for liberty." And yet, Sunstein asks, "Might people's freedom of choice fail to promote their own well-being" from the perspective of their own desires? "Every member of the human species knows that the answer is sometimes yes." So he proposes nudging people to make the choices that will better achieve their own goals.

I would like to see him seriously confront the problem of knowing how to nudge people to get what they want. He might then consider whether government experts, panels, and boards will always have the interests of the people, rather than those of powerful interest groups, in mind. On Freedom is a stimulating read that should nudge libertarians to stop and think harder about nudging. But it could use a little more Hayek and a little less Big Mother.

NEXT: What's Missing in Washington v. Azar

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  1. No ‘government’, that is, the bureaucrats in positions of power, is capable of nudging. They only know about sledgehammers. Is abortion on demand a nudge toward responsible sexual activity? is 20 years in prison a nudge on how to reduce chronic pain? Are 20,000 cameras a nudge to stop at red lights?

    1. Oh, they nudge all right. With the muzzle of a gun.

  2. No “nudge” could have prevented yet another right-wing terrorist act yesterday at a synagogue in California where an anti-Semite went on a shooting spree.

    1. Obviously, he was nudged by the anti-semetic cartoon in the NYT.

      1. More likely he was nudged by the inflamed anti-sematic hate speech by overlords Rashida Tlaib, Ihan Omar and Alexandria Occasional Cortex.

        1. Trump said that Neo-Nazi ‘Jews will not replace us” Charlottesville types were very fine people.

          His “base”.

          1. “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

            After another question at that press conference, Trump became even more explicit:

            “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.”

            1. PB will run and hide now. Back to his violent kiddie porn links for a marathon bitter jerk off session for being shown up here.

            2. Liberals are fucking idiots. Even tapper has called out this fine people BS but they keep repeating it.

          2. “Neo-Nazi Jews will not replace us.”? Some words missing, or added, or what? Who’s “us”?

    2. I’m literally shaking right now. Obviously this shooting demonstrates the need for common sense gun safety legislation.

      #BanAssaultWeapons
      #UnbanMichaelHihn

      1. CA already has the toughest State laws in the nation. What would you recommend?

        1. It’s a well known troll account. Don’t expect an honest answer.

          1. There’s a difference between a troll account and a parody account. OBL and the Rev do some quality satire.

          2. I recognize that, but hey, I give everyone at least one opportunity to clarify their position. Sometimes, I even give them two 🙂

      2. Which is exactly why they need permitless carry.

      3. At least your brave posting led to Palin’s Buttplug returning. I can only hope he meets with Moneyshot soon. What a power pair they would be!!!

    3. No “nudge” could have prevented yet another right-wing terrorist act yesterday at a synagogue in California where an anti-Semite went on a shooting spree.

      Well, now, what if we take that as a serious question?

      Could it be that the person who did that was acting on incorrect information? What if s/he’d been given enough info to understand that Jews weren’t really the impediment to achieving hir aims?

  3. All people, and thus all organizations, make mistakes. The difference between governments and businesses is that businesses operate in competitive markets where failure to correct mistakes leads to bankruptcy. Thus businesses are inherently more trustworthy than governments because their people must be on their toes and satisfy their customers. Businesses depend on their reputations; governments depend on a monopoly of violence.

    Anyone who puts his faith in government — monopolistic, coercive, inbred, incompetent — is a damn fool. Some damn fools are worse than others. Sunstein may not be the worst statist, but he’s still a statist who thinks that he is one of the elites whose duty is to use government to push me around, because I am in ignorant, gullible, naive plebe at best.

    1. Yes! If you are an employee of a private company, and, day after day after day, you follow, in a hide-bound and inflexible manner, petty-ass rules that make NO sense, as you apply them, and get in the way of serving the customer and doing what is right, you will get fired eventually… Or, if there are enough of assholes like you, at the company, the company will go under.

      If you behave the same way at your Government Almighty job, they give you raises, promotions, and ribbons on your chest!

      1. How dare life not be handed to you and you have to face adversity you coddled entitled child.

    2. Even more fundamentally, you can say ‘no!’ to business. You cannot say ‘no’ to government.
      The ‘nudge’ notion would like to pretend otherwise. Everything the government does is from behind the barrel of a gun.

    3. But I have met far too many progressives, especially young ones, who believe that “business” constrains their choices and only government can provide free choice. Where does this inverted logic come from?

      1. Where? Magical thinking. They perceive, incorrectly, that many government services are “free”, whereas they must pay for services from businesses. And, of course, all such services are deemed to expensive, especially when compared to the “free” services rendered by government.

      2. Ellsworth Toohey.

      3. Look at buttgags entire campaign. He literally redefining freedom as provisions by government. Then yang with his ubi and money for all. Pelosi has even ventured into happiness isnthe allowance of government to fund your poo art making passions. Remember Julia under obama?

  4. “Sunstein asks, “Might people’s freedom of choice fail to promote their own well-being” from the perspective of their own desires? “Every member of the human species knows that the answer is sometimes yes.” So he proposes nudging people to make the choices that will better achieve their own goals.”

    Presuming to understand other people’s desires is a fundamental flaw, never mind nudging people to make the right choices to achieve them.

    I prefer to ride motorcycles to work every day. It sparks joy. A panel of experts might decide that it is incompatible with my own desire for safety. I choose to wear a jacket with armor, to ride defensively, and to do other things to make myself safer while I’m riding, so no one can say that I don’t care about safety. Riding a motorcycle through traffic in southern California, however, is fundamentally dangerous. How can a panel of progressive experts presume to gauge my own qualitative preference for safety against my own qualitative preference for joy–until they see my choices?

    If they can’t accurately approximate preferences that are as universally valued as safety vs. other universal values like joy, how can they hope to do so with other qualitative preferences that aren’t as universally valued? I don’t believe there is any accurate way to approximate other people’s preferences about such things before they make choices–without projecting our own qualitative preferences on others. People often don’t even understand their own qualitative preferences until after they make such choices.

    Counseling depressed and anxious people after a divorce is successful when it helps them come to terms with the choices they made. People may come to realize that if they didn’t desire the outcome of their wife leaving them, they wouldn’t have made the choices that contributed and led to that outcome. No, we often don’t understand what it is that we want, but that doesn’t mean a panel of experts understand what we want better than we do. We still have authentic desires of our own that can’t be approximated by anyone else until after we make those qualitative choices for ourselves.

    1. How can you presume to nudge me to make a better choice to fulfill my own desires when you can’t hope to understand my desires (to know what “better” means) until after I’ve made that choice?

    2. Well-said.

    3. Simple. The experts are convinced they know better than you, and for you.

      1. There are egg heads on every side of this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking. Some people are better at it.

        1. Unfortunately progressives believe that they re the ones better at thinking when they are homogeneously worse. If they were better, they would not be progressives.

        2. There is something inherently wrong with thinking that other people know and understand your qualitative preferences better than you do before you make your choices. Meanwhile, there are qualitative aspects to every choice.

          Again, you can’t even account for the qualitative aspect of other people’s choices about something universally valued by sane people like safety. There are people who value safety above everything else–that’s paranoid agoraphobia. Those people lock themselves in their homes for years at a time without leaving. The rest of us make qualitative choices that compromise our safety in pursuit of other desires that also have qualitative components. Some people may be better at thinking, but how could that possibly translate into understanding other people’s qualitative preferences for things like safety, risk, etc–better than they do?

          Do you imagine there’s an expert out there whose expertise is so profound that he can tell me whether I prefer strawberry ice cream to chocolate chip at any given moment? That is a qualitative distinction that no one is better at making on my behalf than I am–even if I a room temperature IQ. Translate that to other qualitative questions about different people’s appetites for safety, risk, etc.–I dare you. Even IF IF IF some people were better than others at making qualitative predictions about people’s choices, none of them could be better at making qualitative choices for you than you are at making them for yourself.

          1. I am glad you’ve finally seen the light and became a full-blown anarcho-capitalist. For how can you presume to dictate how much I value safety as opposed to other people? And thus, how you can you presume to tell me how much I should spend on protection and defense?

            1. Not quite what we’re talking about here Chip, but I’m not surprised you said it anyway.

      2. This has always amused be about modern liberals. They claim to be the party of science and understand evolution, make fun of intelligent design creationists…. then propose intelligent design for human society. It’s just pure irony.

        1. Very interesting point you make.

          I suppose it helps me better understand at least one strident objection to ID is that it implies accountability to another (i.e,. the intelligent designer, not man), while ID for human society is presumed to be by the intelligentsia.

          I wonder if Sunstein would be OK with me being the nudger in his life. I’m guessing he figured he’d be the nudger in my life. LOL

    4. The other component is risk. You know what you value, but you also have to weigh risks in pursuing your various values. The nanny state might think that you are not properly assessing the risks and that is why you will not actualize the benefits you seek (even if you are free to pursue what you value). Of course, the nanny state is just as bad at assessing your risks as it is at assessing your values.

      1. The nanny state might think that you are not properly assessing the risks and that is why you will not actualize the benefits you seek (even if you are free to pursue what you value).

        Otherwise known as “voting against your own self-interest” when backward, knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathers in flyover states persist in voting Republican despite the Democrats promising them free shit at the expense of the evil rich it’s a moral imperative to steal from. It couldn’t possibly be that these voters know all about free lunches and thievery and being condescended to by your moral and intellectual inferiors.

    5. Excellent summary of one of the fundamental flaws in progressive thinking. Another flaw in this desire to “nudge” us, or worse, is the implicit assumption that we all have the same preferences. Even if progressives could accurately assess your preference for motorcycle riding v. safety, whatever they come up with to nudge you will be inconsistent with vast numbers of people that have different preferences. So I might be getting “nudged” in the wrong direction. And when it goes beyond nudging, which it almost always does with progressives, it becomes very problematic.

  5. The egghead do gooder, Cass R. Sunstein, will nudge us to the correct choice: Obamacare or pay a tax, it’s up to you.

  6. Being able to recognize and resist those “nudges” (regardless of source) is a key component of self-control. It’s an important skill to learn for anyone who wants to to fully enjoy the boons of individual liberty and personal responsibility.

    Also, trying to nudge people for your own benefit is an honest component of free market capitalism. Trying to nudge people for their own benefit takes hubris and a lack of self awareness. (Everything you do is actually for your own benefit, whether you realize it or now). It’s what leads to oppression and dependency.

  7. The best and the brightest should intervene to improve outcomes.

    And when their outcomes are not improvements, the “best and brightest” should intervene to off themselves.

    1. That won’t happen with Sunstein’s pals. As they are neither the best, nor the brightest.

  8. For Sunstein, the obvious problem is that people “are unlikely to change their behavior if they do not know what to do.”

    A lotta guys might say that’s obviously on the lunatic fringe of social science.

  9. Sunstein makes the classic mistake of conflating objective and subjective morality. He wants the government to effect the subjective realm of personal choices instead of the objective realm of daily interactions.

    1. There is no such thing as objective morality. Morality is based on values, and all values are subjective.

      1. No they’re not ‘all subjective’. Fucking toddlers is always evil, as is Marxism.

  10. The book disclaims any effort to “explore the differences between ‘negative freedom’ and ‘positive freedom’;…make a final judgment about Mill’s Harm Principle; or investigate the claim that property rights, conferred by the state, can be essential to freedom, or an abridgment of freedom.” In short, Sunstein attempts to discuss “freedom” abstracted from the essential concepts that are necessary to govern its exercise.

    Without getting into the question of what constitutes “good” and “bad”, I’m going to take a bold and possibly controversial stand and make the plain argument that people should do good things and not do bad things. I may be shunned and mocked and castigated for such a stance, but the slings and arrows shall not dissuade me from my firm belief that doing good things is itself a good thing and doing bad things is a bad thing.

    1. DO GOOD THINGS INSTEAD OF BAD THINGS? You are kidding, right? (sarcasm font off). Imagine codifying the Golden Rule….

  11. “Presuming to understand other people’s desires is a fundamental flaw”

    An even more fundamental flaw is presuming to know one’s own desires. I’m sorry to be such a pessimist here, but assuming otherwise is childishly naive.

    1. I, too, enjoy gaslighting.

      1. “I, too, enjoy gaslighting.”

        I think you just pretend to enjoy gaslighting on the internet, for kicks, without having an inkling why.

        1. and you dont know what you want. or so you say.

          1. We have our instincts to guide us, but they only take us so far in complex society.

            1. Speak for yourself, poverty man.

              1. I will, and if you disagree, don’t hesitate to let me know.

    2. An even more fundamental flaw is presuming to know one’s own desires.

      I consider this to be a meaningless statement. What are one’s desires and how does one measure such a thing? Clearly, we only have one sure-fire way of doing so: by observing people’s behavior. Thus we have no way of ever telling if someone is acting against their desires. Consider “I really didn’t want to drink, but I just couldn’t help myself.” Or maybe you did want to drink and that’s why you did.

      1. “Thus we have no way of ever telling if someone is acting against their desires.”

        Yes, I agree. Sometimes we act out of deep rooted compulsions that may be contrary to our desires, which may be conflicting and multifarious, in any case.

      2. I addressed this in my original statement.

        “No, we often don’t understand what it is that we want, but that doesn’t mean a panel of experts understand what we want better than we do. We still have authentic desires of our own that can’t be approximated by anyone else until after we make those qualitative choices for ourselves.

        —-Ken Shultz

        One example might be . . .

        If you were willing to do the things that were necessary to maintain your marriage, you would have chosen to do them–especially once it became clear that your marriage would end if you didn’t do them.

        The option where you don’t get a job, don’t stop drinking so much, don’t get along with the in-laws, don’t spend time listening to your wife, etc. but still stay married may not have been a real option.

        Some people have a hard time taking responsibility for their own choices that way–especially when they feel like they got the short end of the stick. No, you didn’t choose for your wife to go off and start a relationship with some guy at her work, but you weren’t willing to do the things that were necessary to maintain your marriage either. Does that guy know he wants a divorce? No. But if he looks at the choices he made in retrospect, he may often come to the conclusion that the choices he made were consistent with that outcome. It can be hard to look at yourself in the mirror that way.

        Lots of us don’t want to take responsibility for our choices, especially when the outcome is bad and especially when the choice is forced on us.

        “Victim of collision on the open sea
        Nobody ever said life was free
        Sink?
        Swim?
        Go down with the ship?
        Use your freedom of choice!”

        —-Devo

        It’s true that people often don’t really know what they want–until they accept the responsibility for their choices. And it’s hard to do that. There’s this thing called “existential panic”.

        “‘existential crisis’ specifically relates to the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make. The existential crisis occurs when one recognizes that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice. In other words, humankind is “condemned” to freedom.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existential_crisis

        People are often loathe to accept their personal autonomy, and that’s what we’re talking about. They may be so reluctant to accept their own autonomy that what they want isn’t clear to them at all–unless they look at the choices they make. How do you tell if a person really cares about children starving to death in Somalia if they choose to do nothing to help them? Nobody wants to say they don’t care, but if you look at their actions, . . .

        1. “People are often loathe to accept their personal autonomy, and that’s what we’re talking about.”

          I don’t think you can condemn people for this. Take the choice facing those in the market for health insurance. To make the best choice, one needs an idea of potential medical problems that lie in wait. A medical degree would help here. One also needs to delve into the minutia of the numerous insurance plans available, and the skill to understand them. It’s an impossible thing to ask of someone like me who doesn’t have the ability, time or inclination needed to make a responsible choice. Yet you would hold me responsible for the choice I make.

    3. Since I am the one who has to live with my choices, even if I am mistaken, it is my right alone to make those choices.

      1. This is, essentially, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about rights. A right is the obligation of other people to respect our freedom of choice, and it derives from the ability to make choices itself. When people do not respect your right to make choices for yourself, it’s a “crime”, with rape and theft being excellent examples. When the government violates your right to make choices for yourself, we call it “injustice”. In all cases, however, the obligation of other people and the government to respect our rights derives from our ability to make choices. Your rights are the freedom to enjoy or suffer the consequences of your own choices.

  12. How does that work?

    Happiness is the knowledge, not delusion, that your life is in order.

    Love is helping someone be happy.

    The problem, which is also the opportunity for corruption, is that people don’t consider the big picture when discerning their happiness.

    The crook steals and rots in jail.etc.

  13. Too-long-didn’t-read yet. I’ll read it eventually because I like Randy Barnett and his product, but meanwhile I just had to write here that I’m sure the problem is the same as Murray Rothbard said of the Georgists: the single tax. Not that it was single, but that it was a tax. That is, the Georgists were good because they’d get rid of all other taxes, were for free trade, etc., but the residue that was left, a tax, was the bad thing. Similarly, nudging is much better than hitting people over the head, but not as good as leaving them alone entirely, so the only problem with nudging is nudging.

  14. These schemes are all polluted by the schemers’ self-regard and their lack of a wise humility.

    A nudge might not be harmful, but a hundred nudges from a hundred different do-gooders becomes a withering attack.

    And an increasing number of the government actors seem to be motivated by contempt or hatred, some form of green or SJW puritanical mania, or some other evil these days.

    So the individual nudges might be intend as an attack, the aggregate total of nudging is a de facto attack, and the nudgers won’t take no for an answer.

    Tell your friend Cass Sunstein that government lost its legitimacy to decide questions and take actions long ago. If government busybodies want to help, they need to adopt an attitude of humble service to all and maintain that attitude for a very, very long time to earn our trust back.

    1. ” If government busybodies want to help, they need to adopt an attitude of humble service to all and maintain that attitude for a very, very long time to earn our trust back.”

      A fine idea, but Americans seem to prefer governments they distrust. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Distrust of government brought down the Soviet Union, eventually.

      1. Our Constitution was designed the way it was because at our very root this country was founded on the principles that no government can be trusted. It is the very essence of the American system not to trust government. That is why we attempted to limit it’s power.

  15. He might then consider whether government experts, panels, and boards will always have the interests of the people, rather than those of powerful interest groups, in mind.

    It’d be an interesting challenge to structure government to favor that. It can’t be democratic. But it can’t be autocratic either. You might conceive it something like civil service, but the merit rules tend to degenerate into aristocracy. Maybe some arrangement wherein an aristocracy has to try out everything on themselves for a certain period before inflicting it on the population at large. But scale often matters a lot in testing, so it’d have to be a big aristocracy.

    1. It’s not an aristocracy… but federalism was supposed to allow for this. Decentralizedaw making would allow various groups to construct their own patchwork of rules based on their shared preferences. If you did not like the set you were under, options existed. If most people in an area found their choices to be poor, they could survey the various other political organizations (states) and try an ready tested system. All without imposing on everyone else.

      Granted, the logic is poor if you carry it out… it is self defeating as you would inevitably reach anarchy (which is my preference) but it is certainly better than universal application as toon of one choice.

  16. Someone needs to ask Sunstein the following.
    Because (some? or all but only sometimes?) people are presumed to make sub-optimal choices for themselves, they should be “nudged” towards making better choices.
    Presumably, “the best and the brightest” should be the ones to do the nudging.
    It is demonstrably true that just who counts as “the best and the brightest” is not intuitively, nor deductively, obvious.
    So how are we, including perforce those who make sub-optimal choices, to select the ‘nudgers’?

    At which point, the whole charade falls apart and descends into a battle over who gets to decide. Advocating for “nudge-ism” is a sub-optimal choice.

    1. “Advocating for “nudge-ism” is a sub-optimal choice.”

      How do you feel about advocating for fear mongering? Do you trust our fear mongers any more than our nudgers?

      1. If you take a look around you’ll notice that the fearmongers are nudgers and the nudgers are fearmongers – they’re the same people.

        1. I don’t think constructing a food pyramid is fear mongering. Do you?

          1. Fear of inadequate nutrition, poor health etc is what lead to the food pyramid in the first place.

  17. That was Pure Gibberish.

    I’ll, Bibblity Babbidy Boo, Right back at You.

    Happy Birthday, Joanne!!3!!

  18. Some of you are reading things into this position that may not be there. The subject of this article is apparently a follow up to an earlier book with a controversial title from a libertarian perspective, “Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism “Libertarian paternalism–isn’t that an oxymoron? I’m outraged!

    There’s a pretty good review of the essential ideas in the NYRB from back in 2014, here:

    “Resetting the default position this way is what Thaler and Sunstein call a “nudge.” It exploits the structure of the choice to encourage a more desirable option. The decision is not taken entirely out of the employee’s hands. She can still change it and revert to a strategy of no contributions or diminished contributions to her retirement funds. But in that case she has to make an effort; this is where she has to overcome her inertia.”

    Jeremy Waldron
    “It’s All for Your Own Good”
    NYRB
    https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/10/09/cass-sunstein-its-all-your-own-good/

    P.S. We’re still talking about experts making qualitative decisions for other people about what is desirable, and that is still its fundamental flaw.

    P.P.S. From its beginning, utilitarianism has struggled to overcome the limits of qualitative considerations, and despite the heroic efforts of utilitarians since, they still haven’t succeeded in addressing them–at least, not to my eye.

    1. “From its beginning, utilitarianism has struggled to overcome the limits of qualitative considerations, and despite the heroic efforts of utilitarians since, they still haven’t succeeded in addressing them–at least”

      The medical profession has been struggling with this a lot longer than utilitarians. “Do no harm” have been the watchwords of doctors since the days of Hippocrates, In all this time, they’ve yet to perfect the science of mind reading, yet people often turn to them, trusting them with life and death decisions.

      1. So you consider someone *making a choice* to seek out the advice of an expert to be the same as said expert forcing his judgement upon you?

        1. No, I don’t consider someone *making a choice* to seek out the advice of an expert to be the same as said expert forcing his judgement upon you.

          Anyone who has ever sought serious medical care has been willing to let experts make life and death decisions on their behalf. Ken Shultz tells us they are mistaken because an expert couldn’t possibly know what’s best for the patient. I disagree. This is typical conservative anti-intellectual claptrap.

          1. But the patient still makes the choice. The Dr. gives his advice/opinion. The Dr. says the patient needs surgery. The patient can still weigh his options, discuss the risk and make the decision not to have the surgery.
            Ultimately you pay the Dr. for their professional advice (and skills if you decide to have a procedure). It is still the individual’s choice to follow it.

            1. “But the patient still makes the choice.”

              What I’m objecting to is the notion that an expert simply can’t know what’s best for somebody else, and that only the individual in question can know something so personal and intimate. Further. as I state elsewhere, leaving many decisions in the hands of uninformed laypersons is irresponsible. The best choice for health insurance, for example, requires sound medical knowledge and knowledge of the insurance business, something almost none of us have or can reasonably be expected to attain.

  19. I’ma gonna have to apologize for making a joke upon the departure of Ed Krayewski, MA CSJ, from Reason. Fire Shackelford and bring him back. This is fuckin’ great

    Actually, I hope Ed has or lands a better job.

    The above is so great I’ll put on my innumerate hat and buy megapowermillionsballs tickets as long as the jackpots roll over just so if I eat the 1 in 300 million odds I can start a digital media company and offer Ed the editorship.

  20. I’ve heard Sunstein talk about this on a couple of podcasts. One of his notions of nudge is that the government would determine default choices for everyone, not preventing them from choosing otherwise.

    It all sounds a bit naive to me. When people don’t respond to nudges adequately, certainly the Department of Nudges will advocate nudging a little harder, will they not?

    The food pyramid is a good example of how this gets out of hand. The suggestion to eat garbage carbs went from bad advice to a requirement baked in to government policy. Even with all the evidence against it, the Dept of Agriculture is still pushing a fattening heart disease lifestyle.

    Instead of inventing new nudges, it would be better for Sunstein to focus on removing the existing nudges that lead to perverse unintended outcomes.

    1. Exactly: One of the bigger problems with the idea of “nudges”, is that the sort of person who thinks they’re reasonable in the first place is going to see the failure of people to do as they’re “nudged” as proof they weren’t nudged hard enough. So a “nudge” becomes a “shove”, and eventually an irresistible force.

  21. Nudges become shoves when the initial nudge turns out not to be enough. Then the recipient of the nudge often shoved back. Look at the yellow vest protesters in France for an example.

  22. “”Let the market decide” is not necessarily a recipe for correct answers.”

    Actually, it kind of is. The invisible hand isn’t magic; you know better than anyone else what may be best for you given your current situation. When we pursue our own self interest freely, we compromise with others to achieve the best possible result. By definition, that produces societally optimal outcomes. That’s not an opinion. Voluntary exchange is inherently acceptable to both parties or else it wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

    There are always smarter people, but only you can live your own life. The more degrees removed you are from your life, the greater the room for error. That’s why central planning always fails and the most free nations are the most prosperous.

  23. Sunstein is a progressive liberal. He genuinely loathes individual freedom. Like all progressives, he thinks “we”(meaning Cass and his comrades–not you ) can do better than merely destroying the rights of individuals and forcing human actions from that point. The best and the brightest should rule, with well hidden iron fists.

    FTFY.

    1. Let’s try this again–

      Sunstein is a progressive liberal. He genuinely loathes individual freedom. Like all progressives, he thinks “we”(meaning Cass and his comrades–not you ) can do better than merely destroying the rights of individuals and forcing human actions from that point. The best and the brightest should rule, with well hidden iron fists.

      FTFY.

      1. There.

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