For decades now, observers have been coming up with names for the class of administrators who run the bulk of our public and, increasingly, private lives. From simply “new class” to “clerisy” to “apparatchiks,” none of these names are intended as compliments, though none of them has had any seeming impact on members of the class themselves; administrators continue on, comfortable that they are doing for we mere civilians that which we could not do so well for ourselves. The character of this class varies according to time and place, with both force and corruption being more blatant in some times and countries than others. The latest incarnation of our betters is less overtly hostile to what they would call the rights of the people than in the recent past. But it has become more insidious than ever, more arrogant in its supposed mastery of “social science,” and worst of all creepier. By creepier I mean more willing to manipulate the rest of us and, almost as bad, to simply berate us for making “bad choices” in what ought to be our personal lives. In policy terms the result is more of the same soft despotism backed by force of law we have seen for well over a century of “progressive reform,” but with a more pervasive impact and with an irritating new tactic, namely hectoring. Administrators, however petty, now see it as their duty to change our attitudes through law, regulation, and simply nagging to make us into model citizens of their utopia of tolerance, equality (as administered by them, of course) and mindless pursuit of the latest “green” fad. The new focus is not on the wholesale method of propaganda, which we have seen produces cynicism and resistance, but rather on the retail methods involved in manipulating individual choices.
Case in point: In Nudge, Cass Sunstein, sometime Obama Administration official and permanent member of our academic ruling class, joins with colleague Richard Thaler in setting out how the government can improve our “decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.” No modesty (false or otherwise) here. In a mere 253 pages Thaler and Sunstein tell us how bureaucrats can shape people’s preferences to “save the planet” (of course) choose the “right” healthcare, and generally build better lives for themselves. It is that “for themselves” part that is most disconcerting, and in an important way the least honest about this book and about what can only properly be called our hectoring class.
Thaler and Sunstein begin from the rather trite observation that our choices are conditioned by all kinds of external and internal factors. They then assert that the conditions under which we choose are shaped by all kinds of “choice architects.” Choice architects are the people—from the cafeteria lady to the head of human resources—who design spaces, place items, and otherwise organize portions of our world in ways that affect our choices. Thaler and Sunstein claim that this power to affect choices is widely distributed, yet it just so happens that the vast majority of choice architects in our society either work for or answer to the government. Of course, what that means in practice is that regulators have a duty to “nudge” people into making the right choices.
Nudge is not terribly interesting in and of itself. It is simply repackaged Progressivism. But it is worth brief consideration because it is the latest attempt to camouflage the commands of prideful administrators through appeals to individual autonomy.
Thaler and Sunstein dub themselves “libertarian paternalists.” And we are supposed to think of this as a good, if supposedly newly developing, ideological position. Libertarian paternalists will move us toward better choices, but see to it that they are in some relevant sense our own. Our choices will be our own because we always will have more than one option to choose from, and the conditions on those choices supposedly will be subtle and non-threatening. The authors make a point of distinguishing “nudge,” meaning a small, suggestive motion, from the hectoring implied by the old Yiddish term “noodge.” Apparently they believe they are being subtle, and that the policies they advocate will be seen as equally subtle. Anyone familiar with the phrase “if you like your health insurance plan you can keep it” should be able to recognize the deep dishonesty at the heart of such claims. Given the power to “nudge,” administrators and other choice architects are not likely to leave “bad” choices on the table; and we should not be surprised if, over time, all but the “best” choice will be deemed bad. Then again, perhaps if we like the color of our health insurance card we will be allowed to keep it?
The introduction to Nudge begins with the story of a hypothetical woman who is in charge of food services for a large city school system. Lawyer/bureaucrats and economists love hypothetical situations because they allow them to, in a sense, control and even create reality, smuggling their own preferences and prejudices into an argumentative scenario “under the radar,” as it were. In this case the authors use the hypothetical situation as an excuse to engage in a thought experiment concerning the power of placement. The cafeteria lady has the power to determine where foods are placed in the lunch line and, according to Thaler and Sunstein, decides to see how she can affect students’ food choices. Utterly unsurprisingly, it turns out that students will buy the food that is placed most in their line of sight, meaning that all the cafeteria lady has to do is order the food offerings to be moved around and, voila, student choices change. Later in the book the authors present some social science evidence for their conclusory example. But the evidence is not nearly as clear as their hypothetical would indicate (we are dealing with marginal effects, here) and they wield it with all the subtlety of a battleaxe, simply ignoring cautionary evidence and concerns.
Given these made up facts, Thaler and Sunstein muse, what should the cafeteria lady do? Why, use her power for good, of course. The authors review a number of possibilities, including one (random placement) seemingly promoting individual choice. What they do not allow for is the possibility that the cafeteria lady might mind her own business and allow for self-governance, not merely for children but more importantly among more local organizations. The legitimacy of the cafeteria lady’s power, rooted in paternalistic programs that have helped destroy public schooling and local associations including churches, charitable associations and the family, is assumed without question. “We have the power, so let’s use it well” is an easy but presumptuous unreflective position from which to begin. So much for libertarianism.
Moreover, the assumption is clear, and built upon throughout the book, that “there is no such thing as a neutral design” for much of anything—from the arrangement of office space to the design of the form used by employees in enrolling in healthcare. All is open to manipulation by choice architects. All should be used to achieve goals the authors, in their paternalistic wisdom, deem good, on the assumption that their plans can indeed produce that good by manipulating individuals. Tradition becomes “inertia” or “default positions” useful for their power in moving the thoughtless in the “right” direction. Freedom becomes nothing more than choosing among options presented by the architects now structuring our reality.
What we have here is the old Progressive vision of the neutral administrator who uses his expertise to reshape an ignorant public according to “scientific” standards. Decades of counter arguments and examples are beneath the authors’ notice, of course. But we should be less concerned with the public policy facts encapsulated in the recognition of unintended consequences than with the assumptions underlying the paradigm of the nudge. The paradigm seems intended primarily to make administrators and others wielding petty amounts and types of power comfortable with the idea that they should use their “inevitable” and “never neutral” powers to forward their own policy preferences (which will, of course, essentially always lean left). After all, relatively few of the great unwashed workers, entrepreneurs and consumers who are the objects of choice architecture are likely to read this book. Thus, what Thaler and Sunstein can hope to accomplish with this book is to further encourage low-level bureaucrats (those who design healthcare forms and the like) and their supervisors to see every form and design as an opportunity to make us “choose better.”
The sheer creepiness of such a program may make it seem unrealistic. But we should not forget the victories of various social activists in redesigning tests, faculties, hiring forms, and school textbooks to reflect their vision of a good society. Race and gender balancing, portrayals of “green” behavior and so on are things we are told only paranoids would find threatening at the same time that various pressure groups demand “greater representation” even in television programs. What Thaler and Sunstein show is that these choices are in fact seen as proper objects of manipulation aimed at reshaping how we view the world. Most helpful is their taking of the label “paternalistic,” here, for it allows us to point out that these “choices” by administrators in various non-governmental entities are in fact shaped by laws, and more often by mere regulations and even the simple preferences of particular administrators with the power to make life difficult for “private” organizations that make the “wrong” choices.
What makes no appearance, here, is the “choice” of self-government. That “choice,” at the center of the design of our Constitution and the common law that once undergirded it, sees a good life as one made up of human interactions within a variety of associations aimed at pursuing a variety of goods. A society in which such associations are allowed to govern themselves may not, in fact, achieve the theoretical perfection of health, education, and planetary welfare Thaler and Sunstein posit for their nudged populace. But then something always seems to happen between the administrator’s blueprints and the life of actual persons that keeps us from living in their promised land. That something is, of course, human nature, which is fallible even among the cognoscenti. And one of the greatest harms done by policies very much like those promoted in Nudge has been the undermining of local, face-to-face communities in which actual people may find help and meaning.
It no doubt will be seen as anti-intellectual, and worse, but we might consider the best response to the line of argument presented in books like Nudge, as it is to anyone who won’t stop hectoring, to be a simple and heartfelt “shut up!”
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, and he is a Nomocracy in Politics Contributor.