Policy nudges Notes for November 28

Main points

We discussed the parts of Nudge devoted to showing how nudges could be used to solve specific problems: parts II-IV.

I think it’s fair to say that Part II, on finance, struck us as having the most compelling examples of this method.

What is their paternalism like?

Prof. Brown asked whether they had departed from some of the central commitments of libertarian paternalism in their discussions of organ donation and the environment. The central commitment, as she saw it, was that nudges would be directed only at making people’s lives better by their own lights.

Paternalism that is constrained in this way is more attractive than paternalism that seeks to impose values on people. For example: “we’re forcing you to worship in our church for your own good because you’ll go to hell if you don’t.”

But in the chapters on organ donation and the environment, Prof. Brown sees attempts to change people’s values. To put it more abstractly, nudges that involve what Thaler and Sunstein call “norms” don’t appear to be directed at helping those who are nudged live better lives from the perspective of their own values. These nudges appear to be directed at giving people different values through social pressure.

Akshata and Brendan thought that Thaler and Sunstein didn’t depart from their central commitments. Akshata said she thought these nudges were supposed to help us to align our behavior with our values: we want to donate organs and save energy but irrationally resist taking the steps to do these things. Brendan thought that the nudges are aimed at our collective well-being. (Though I think here Prof. Brown would be right to say that this is a departure from paternalism, which usually involves intervention into an individual’s life for that individual’s own good.)

What is their libertarianism like?

We didn’t think they have a very deep commitment to libertarianism. The chief strategy of the book is to point out ways of achieving social goals that would not make the state any worse from a libertarian perspective. But they sometimes dismiss alternatives on the grounds that they would run afoul of libertarianism. This struck me as disingenuous. They don’t propose getting rid of existing policies that run afoul of libertarianism. So they’re really in no position to suggest that there’s something objectionable about adding new ones.

Maybe the idea is that we should use libertarianism to break ties. If there are two policies that are equally good at advancing a desirable goal, we should prefer the one that is consistent with libertarianism.

If so, that’s fair enough. But, in my opinion, the non-libertarian, regulatory state does most of the heavy lifting. There’s no automatic move from “nudges can be surprisingly effective” to “nudges give us all we need.”

Prof. Green on libertarianism

I closed with two points about libertarianism. First, I think it’s misleading of libertarians to characterize a society’s decision not to enforce a kind of contract as a deprivation of liberty. It’s true that this sort of decision will reduce the options available to people. But they’re saying that the other members of society have to bear the costs of enforcing contracts that they believe are unwise or immoral. The ability of individuals to make these kinds of binding contracts comes at the expense of others. The fact that some individuals want to make them doesn’t automatically mean that others must help them do so. Why shouldn’t those others have a say in the matter?

Second, I think it’s important to be clear about your reasons for being a libertarian. Mill’s libertarianism, for instance, was based on his utilitarianism: he thought that social interference in individual’s lives would make those individuals, and the broader society, worse off than they would be if individuals were left to their own devices. Nozick’s libertarianism is based on his view of natural rights: it’s just wrong to interfere with liberty, period. Consequently, they have quite different views about when limits on liberty are permissible.

I’m not sure why Thaler and Sunstein find libertarianism attractive. Some members of the seminar suggested it’s largely rhetorical: paying lip service to libertarianism helps to sell the paternalism that they really care about. There’s something to that, but I don’t think it’s quite that cynical. They clearly have a preference for individual liberty. I would have liked to hear more about why, but see why that would have taken them off their central topic. Still, it means it’s hard to say when their libertarianism should take priority over their paternalism.

The next author we’re going to read favors something like libertarianism for a different reason. He’s concerned about the growth of state power and favors libertarianism over paternalism as a way of stopping the state from getting too much power. So his case against libertarian paternalism will not be like Mill’s: it’s not that paternalism will fail to improve people’s lives. It’s that even if it succeeds, it will have far worse consequences.

Everyone’s a critic

We entertained several ideas about how we might have structured the book differently. For instance, we imagined chapters organized by type of nudge rather than by social problem. And we thought about what it would be like if it were more forthrightly about paternalism, comparing instances of paternalism that involve limits on liberty with those that do not, for instance.

I think that imaginative exercises like that are a great way of thinking about a book. They help you to identify its central ideas and to develop your own style as a writer.

But it’s also important to remember that Thaler and Sunstein actually came up with the ideas and wrote the book. The fact that we can imagine it having gone a different way shouldn’t detract from our appreciation of what they did. Easy to criticize, hard to do.

And now for something completely different

If you get yourself a Braun Oral-B Triumph with SmartGuide, you’ll get at least two smiles every day and clean teeth in the bargain! You will feel silly paying that much for a toothbrush. But it beats paying the dentist. Plus, there are the smileys.

Finally, Amadé and I have learned that the board game Monopoly was preceded by a game that was developed to explain the ideas of Henry George.

Three decades before Darrow’s patent, in 1903, a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a nineteenth-century writer who had popularized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land. In his book Progress and Poverty (1879), George called private land ownership an “erroneous and destructive principle” and argued that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”

Magie called her invention The Landlord’s Game, and when it was released in 1906 it looked remarkably similar to what we know today as Monopoly.

Now you know what to get Amadé for Christmas! Er, winter holiday gift-exchanging season.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted November 29, 2012.
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