Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What's wrong with nudging?

What, if anything, is wrong with the 'nudge' theory of liberal paternalism? (By this I mean state-sanctioned fiddling with the architecture of choice so as to encourage people, without forcing them, to choose what is good for them or for society as a whole. The classic examples are making the default option to make contributions to a pension or to be on the donor register.)

Jeremy Waldron has a little article about this in the New York Review of Books and my thoughts on his article are below.
Tyler Cowen picks up on this bit of Waldron:

"More reassuring, I think, would be a candid assessment of what might go wrong with nudging. One of Sunstein’s many books (from before his time in the White House) is entitled Worst-Case Scenarios. Could we please have something like that as a companion to Nudge?

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.

One can see that that is a worry. But it's not a nudge-specific worry. (Let me come back to the word 'trust' below.) Governments make mistakes about old-fashioned paternalism too. Indeed, the nice thing about nudges is that they are relatively small: it's much worse if a Government gets a war wrong than if it makes a mistake about the default pension-saving percentage.

In any case, that's not the nub of Waldron's worries. Rather, he is concerned about human dignity, a deeper and more subtle problem. Here Waldron relates nudging to what Bernard Williams described as 'Government House utilitarianism':

"Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.

For Sunstein’s idea is that we who know better should manipulate the choice architecture so that those who are less likely to perceive what is good for them can be induced to choose the options that we have decided are in their best interest. Thaler and Sunstein talk sometimes of “asymmetric paternalism.” The guiding principle of this approach

is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.

This is a benign impulse on their part, but it is not a million miles away from the condescension that worried Bernard Williams."

Again, I think one can see the issue. (And how typical of Williams to spot it: he is, of modern philosophers, perhaps the most likely to have been found dining in Government House.) But how real is it? The most offensive thing about Government House utilitarianism is the hypocrisy: comprehensive schools for everyone - except the minister's own children; no McDonalds' meals for poor people, but the better sort can be trusted not to over-indulge in butter and foie gras; we in the Bloomsbury Group can live in squares and love in triangles, but below stairs people had better keep their trousers on; and so on.

But that's not normally the problem with nudging. The nudgers themselves sign up to the organ register and save for retirement too, and if they smoke, they wouldn't mind being nudged into giving up. The nudgers are the same people who sign up to apps that help them to lose weight.

Here's Waldron again, getting to his best point:

"Nudging doesn’t teach me ... to abandon irrational intuitions or outdated rules of thumb. It does not try to educate my choosing, for maybe I am unteachable. Instead it builds on my foibles. It manipulates my sense of the situation so that some heuristic—for example, a lazy feeling that I don’t need to think about saving for retirement—which is in principle inappropriate for the choice that I face, will still, thanks to a nudge, yield the answer that rational reflection would yield. Instead of teaching me to think actively about retirement, it takes advantage of my inertia. Instead of teaching me not to automatically choose the first item on the menu, it moves the objectively desirable items up to first place.

I still use the same defective strategies but now things have been arranged to make that work out better. Nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child. The people doing this ... are not exactly using me as a mere means in violation of some Kantian imperative. They are supposed to be doing it for my own good. Still, my choosing is being made a mere means to my ends by somebody else—and I think this is what the concern about dignity is all about.

This is a deeper and more subtle concern. Let's go back to organ donation for a moment (and leave aside the point that organ donation is not for the donor's good, but the donee). In Non-Nudge World, the government sets up an organ donor register and advertises for people to sign up. A lively debate ensues as to whether people should sign up, whether doctors will strive to save lives, whether it is yucky and so on. Eventually the forces of reason prevail and a norm arises in favour of signing up to the register. But people being people, only 60% of the population actually get round to ticking the box. Meanwhile in Nudge World, the Government requires you to tick a box to opt out of the register every time you interact with the state, even to renew your library card. No one thinks much about it, if they even notice the opt-out boxes, and 98% of the population is on the register. Which world is the better one? I said I would return to the word 'trust': which world displays greater trust between Government House and the masses? Does the Government in Nudge World undermine trust?

As I say, I think this is Waldron's best point. But it's not a great one. The amount of trust in a society is going to depend on a huge number of things not to do with organ donor registers - meanwhile having an extra 38% of organs is a pretty good thing.

In fact, a certain degree of governmental setting of choice architecture which seems fair and equitable can strengthen trust. I would suggest the NHS as an example: from the point of view of a patient (or a doctor) used to having a set of rights which can be enforced or negotiated, it seems paternalistic. You are nudged (and occasionally shoved) all the way from cradle to grave. For example: do you have the right to a second opinion? The answer is strictly no but you will rarely be refused one. So how often are you offered one? The choice architecture here is beyond nudgy and into opaque. But the whole thing seems to work, it seems to be fair, there is little impression that the people in Government House are flying to the US for their medical care and so we are happy and full of trust. (Indeed, given the lack of trust in the financial services industry, the mis-selling of personal pensions and so on, a fully compulsory state pension system which crowded out private pensions could well lead to an increase in trust across society. It would be wrong for other reasons.)

So nudging is, it seems to me, as good as its fans think. I want to conclude, however, by making two more points which go beyond Waldron. My thoughts are about thinking about nudging rather than nudging itself.

The first is that there is a further benefit associated with 'nudging' the social phenomenon, i.e. the fact that popular books and articles are written about it. That is that by making nudging overt and considered, the people in Government House and its academic outbuildings are precisely not treating people as children but educating them. We (inside and outside Government House) know to look for the opt-out boxes for junk mail - we would spot the organ donor ones too. But we had to work that out for ourselves. Now we have books that tell us about how the Government can guide us using the same techniques - and we can use them ourselves, by not picking up trays in canteens, by moving the bowl of fruit into reach and the biscuits into a far-off cupboard, and so on. Imagine if the nudging unit had come to light in the same way that the NSA's spying programmes had - it is very pleasant that nudging takes place in the warm light of day.

The second point is about conservatism. As the likes of Roger Scruton tell us, the traditions and institutions that we inherit embody, in implicit and subtle ways, the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. There is much to be said for keeping these traditions going, and much to be feared from throwing them away simply because an armchair philosopher has come up with a new theory that seems more clean and logical. What do nudgers think? Let's take marriage as an example. The conservative tells us that marriage is the foundation of society, woven into the very fabric of moral order and so on. The nudger says: studies show that although a man can leave a woman and her children destitute, he is significantly less likely to if he has made a public commitment before his friends and family not to do so, so there is a social benefit in the institution and we should nudge people towards embracing it. The rash conservative seizes on the nudger as an ally; the thoughtful one holds back. The nudger can reconcile the liberal to the existence and perpetuation of institutions that conservatives love; but it cannot make the liberal see the meaning in them (and the importance of that meaning) that the conservative sees and loves.

Perhaps the real danger of nudging that it produces Government House conservatism, by which I mean that although there is no hypocrisy in the sense of different rules inside and outside the House, those inside the House have a different set of justifications for the rules from those outside. They get married, just as they want everyone else to, but they don't believe in "Marriage".

We have seen Tory men and Whig measures so often: is nudging the invitation for Whig men and Tory measures?

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