Comments on It’s All for Your Own Good

An incisive essay by Jeremy Waldron in The New York Review of Books, “It’s All for Your Own Good,” presents an important critique of how liberal paternalism undermines self-respect among those it intends to benefit.

In his commentary on two recent books by Cass Sunstein, Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism and Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, Waldron offers an even-handed evaluation of the strengths and weakness of various efforts to encourage beneficial behavior by shaping available choices.

A classic example is offered by 401(k) retirement plans. Many people don’t enroll in those plans or “select levels of contribution that are far below what would be most advantageous to them.” Sunstein proposes discouraging this pattern by assuring that “enrollment at some appropriate level of contribution is the default position—the position that obtains if the employee does nothing.” This approach would not be a requirement. The employee would remain free to make a different decision. But it would result in more workers being better prepared for retirement.

Waldron considers such nudging “an attractive strategy.” After all, he says, “There is no getting away from this: choices are always going to be structured in some manner, whether it’s deliberately designed or happens at random. Nudging is about the self-conscious design of choice architecture.”

With a wise and effective government, “the result would be a sort of soft paternalism: paternalism without the constraint; a nudge rather than a shove; doing for people what they would do for themselves if they had more time or greater ability to pick out the better choice.” Sunstein calls this “libertarian paternalism,” which Waldron describes as “a good-natured paternalism that is supposed to leave individual choosing intact.”

In contrast to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban super-sized soft drinks, “a nudger wouldn’t try anything so crass. If you ordered a soda in nudge-world, you would get a medium cup, no questions asked; you’d have to go out of your way to insist on a large one.” Sunstein would also abolish trays. “You could insist on a tray if you wanted to hold up the line, but a tray-free policy has been proved to lower food and beverage waste by up to 50 percent in certain environments.” Though Sunstein approves some requirements, such as seat belts, he leans toward methods that leave more choice.

Though Waldron acknowledges that “all this seems sensible,” he also says “there is a core of genuine worry.” His first concern is with the policy makers, whom Sunstein, a professor and former Obama Administration official, refers to as “we.”

We know this, we know that, and we know better about the way ordinary people make their choices. We are the law professors and the behavioral economists who (a) understand human choosing and its foibles much better than members of the first group and (b) are in a position to design and manipulate the architecture of the choices that face ordinary folk. In other words, the members of this second group are endowed with a happy combination of power and expertise.

Waldron points out that “regulators are people too. And like the rest of us, they are fallible…. There is a new book by two British political scientists called The Blunders of Our Governments that might serve as a useful companion to Why Nudge?

Sunstein indicates some awareness of that fact. But according to Waldron,

He offers little more than reassurance that there actually are good-hearted and competent folks like himself in government…. I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused.

Beyond that issue of trust and competence, Waldron moves on to examine what he calls “deeper questions,” including “the element of insult” and “condescension.”

Deeper even than this is a prickly concern about dignity. What becomes of the self-respect we invest in our own willed actions, flawed and misguided though they often are, when so many of our choices are manipulated to promote what someone else sees (perhaps rightly) as our best interest? Sunstein is well aware that many will see the rigging of choice through nudges as an affront to human dignity: I mean dignity in the sense of self-respect, an individual’s awareness of her own worth as a chooser…. Practically everything he says about it, however, is an attempt to brush dignity aside…. Sunstein seems happy to associate himself with those who maintain that dignity just equals autonomy or that if there is anything left out of that equation, it is not worth bothering with.

Eventually what we are told by Sunstein is that autonomy is just a surrogate for welfare—what people ultimately want is the promotion of their own well-being and it doesn’t really matter how that comes about…. I must say that I find all of this remarkably tone-deaf to concerns about autonomy.

And allowing dignity to just drop out of the picture is offensive. For by this stage, dignity is not being mentioned at all. Sunstein does acknowledge that people might feel infantilized by being nudged. He says that “people should not be regarded as children; they should be treated with respect.” But saying that is not enough. We actually have to reconcile nudging with a steadfast commitment to self-respect.

Waldron believes “any nudging can have a slightly demeaning or manipulative character,” but acknowledges that if nudgees are always openly told what is happening, that impact might be mitigated. However, Waldron reports that though “Sunstein says he is committed to transparency, he does acknowledge that some nudges have to operate ‘behind the back’ of the chooser.”

It may seem a bit much to saddle Cass Sunstein with all this. The objections about dignity and manipulation that I’ve been considering can sound hysterical. It is perfectly reasonable for him to ask: “Is there anything insulting or demeaning about automatic enrollment in savings and health care plans, accompanied by unconstrained opt-out rights?” The strategies he advocates, when used wisely and well, seem like a sensible advance in public regulation, particularly when we consider them nudge by nudge.

However, Waldron concludes:

Still, it is another matter whether we should be so happy with what I have called “nudge-world.” In that world almost every decision is manipulated in this way. Choice architects nudge almost everything I choose and do, and this is complemented by the independent activity of marketers and salesmen, who nudge away furiously for their own benefit. I’m not sure I want to live in nudge-world, though—as a notoriously poor chooser—I appreciate the good-hearted and intelligent efforts of choice architects such as Sunstein to make my autonomous life a little bit better. I wish, though, that I could be made a better chooser rather than having someone on high take advantage (even for my own benefit) of my current thoughtlessness and my shabby intuitions.

I share his worry. And though his reference to being “made” into a wiser man may be ironic, I’m uneasy with that option and would be more interested in creating a less hectic world that would enable everyone to take more time to be more thoughtful and inspire one another to absorb information that could be made more transparent. Regardless, Waldron’s concerns about how paternalism undermines dignity and self-respect are well-taken and need to be taken seriously.

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