Defending Nudges

By Jonathan B. Wight

In “Misconceptions About Nudges.” Cass Sunstein seeks to redeem nudges from the lambast emanating from Kantians and others. I’ll leave it to Mark White to rebut (if he chooses).


Some people believe that nudges are an insult to human agency; that nudges are based on excessive trust in government; that nudges are covert; that nudges are manipulative; that nudges exploit behavioral biases; that nudges depend on a belief that human beings are irrational; and that nudges work only at the margins and cannot accomplish much. These are misconceptions. Nudges always respect, and often promote, human agency; because nudges insist on preserving freedom of choice, they do not put excessive trust in government; nudges are generally transparent rather than covert or forms of manipulation; many nudges are educative, and even when they are not, they tend to make life simpler and more navigable; and some nudges have quite large impacts.

Broadcaster Quits over Ethics Concern

By Jonathan B. Wight

Ed Cunningham, who played pro-football for five years and did TV game coverage for 20 years afterwards, has walked away from the camera.

He initially gave as a reason the standard response of wanting to spend more time with his family.  But he felt bad about that incomplete answer, and has now come clean.

A stronger answer is that he can’t stand to be a person who profits from a sport that is taking excessive risks with players’ lives.  The key problem are injuries to the head, which lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. 

Cunningham isn’t the only one to say adios to the violence: recently a coach has quit and a pro player has quit.  But these are exceptions.

There is an “industrial complex of college football,” and broadcasters are complicit with coaches, sports promoters, and advertisers, Cunningham says, in pretending that things are okay when really there is a crisis. 

       *    *    *

Everyone should have the freedom to choose their own career, so why doesn’t Cunningham respect the choices made by football players themselves, who choose their profession and continue to play knowing the risks? 

His answer is highly personal—he’s been close to several players who have committed suicide suffering with CTE.  Perhaps they knew the risks as abstract concepts, but that’s a whole lot different once it happens to you.

Is there behavioral irrationality at work—and hence a need for paternalism?  Cunningham makes the case for simple rules:

  • No hitting before high school
  • Each player limited to only a certain number of plays per game
  • Tougher penalties against players who use their helmets as a weapon when hitting
  • Changing the composition of helmets to make them less dangerous

These are modest changes that likely don’t do enough to make the game much safer. Nothing is perfectly safe, so designing something to be risk free is both fruitless and undesirable. 

My own preference is to withdraw the huge public subsidies to pro-football.  These include the public-built sports stadiums, and the huge expenses of college athletics, that pretend to be giving youngsters an education when really it is unpaid sweatshop labor.  Make colleges divest their major money athletic programs from their academic programs.  Enforce greater accountability and transparency about the true cost to society of major league college athletics.  

None of this will necessarily solve the problem Cunningham worries about, and some of these changes might make it worse.  

Special issue of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice: Private Autonomy, Public Paternalism?

Mark D. White

The latest issue of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (17/3, June 2014) is devoted to the theme "Private Autonomy, Public Paternalism?" and features articles by Joel Anderson, John Christman, Bijan Fateh-Moghadam and Thomas Gutmann, John Kultgen, Amy Mullin, and Diana Tietjens Meyers. Rather than link to each article, I'll reproduce part of the editor's introduction (open access):

A special issue on ‘Private Autonomy and Public Paternalism’ constitutes the first part of this issue. Guest-editors are Annette Dufner and Michael Kühler, both from the University of Munster, Germany. It is often assumed that personal autonomy is a ‘private’ matter in the sense that it is based primarily on a person’s subjective characteristics and capabilities. At the same time, the literature mainly deals with paternalism as a problem of the ‘public’ sphere, for example by focusing on the dangers that threaten the autonomy of individuals as citizens, such as state paternalism. However, it is widely acknowledged nowadays that personal autonomy can only develop and flourish if conditions in the social and relational sphere are favourable, which means that personal autonomy is not so private after all. At the same time, it should be clear that paternalism not only relates to our behaviour in the public sphere, but also to how we behave in more private social spheres, like family, friendships, romantic or sexual relationships.

Being autonomous, says Joel Anderson in the article that opens the special issue, is a socially attributed, socially claimed, and socially contested status, like being able to drive a car. Normative debates about criteria for autonomy (and what autonomy entitles one to) are best understood, not as debates about what autonomy, at core, really is, but rather as debates about the relative merits of various possible packages of thresholds, entitlements, regulations, values, and institutions. John Christman looks at various ways that interpersonal and social relations can be seen as required for autonomy. He considers cases where those dynamics might play out or not in potentially paternalistic situations. In particular, he considers cases of especially vulnerable persons who are attempting to reconstruct a sense of practical identity required for their autonomy and need the potential paternalist’s aid in doing so. He then draws out the implications for standard liberal principles of (anti-) paternalism, specifically in clinical or therapeutic situations. According to Bijan Fateh-Moghadam and Thomas Gutmann, conventional liberal critique of paternalism turns out to be insensitive to the intricate normative problems following from ‘soft’ or ‘libertarian’ paternalism. In fact, these autonomy-oriented forms of paternalism could actually be even more problematic and may infringe liberty rights even more intensely than hard paternalistic regulation. Fateh-Moghadam and Gutmann aim to contribute to the systematic differentiation of soft and hard paternalism by discussing the (legal) concept of autonomy and by elaborating the moral and legal limits of autonomy-orientated paternalism. John Kultgen points out how far-reaching the changes in our public life would actually have to be if we wanted to avoid paternalism altogether. Many professional regulations, not just in medicine and law, but also in engineering and many other areas of expertise, have a strongly paternalistic function. Professional organizations are neither governments, nor necessarily democratic, but they are often state-certified and produce binding regulations for issues of public interest. Kultgen bites the bullet and accepts professional paternalism, while insisting that special care should be placed on how to design an appropriate professional code of conduct. Amy Mullin addresses the issue of paternalism in child-rearing. The parent–child relationship is generally understood as a relationship that is supposed to promote the development and autonomy-formation of the child, so that the apparent source of the concept is a form of autonomy-oriented paternalism. Far from taking paternalism to be overtly unproblematic in such paradigmatic, pedagogical settings, Mullin analyses how an effort should be made to understand a child’s capacities and which standards parents should be held to when deciding whether interference truly serves the child’s interests. The last contributor to the special issue, Diana Tietjens Meyers, argues that potential cases of oppression, such as sex trafficking, can sometimes compromise autonomous choices by the trafficked individuals. This issue still divides radical from liberal feminists, with the former wanting to ‘rescue’ the ‘victims’ and the latter insisting that there might be good reasons for ‘hiding from the rescuers.’ Tietjens Meyers presents new arguments for the liberal approach and raises two demands: first, help organizations should be run by affected women and be open-minded about whether or not the trafficked individuals should remain in the sex industry. Second, the career choices of trafficked individuals should be expanded by the introduction of an opportunityextending right to asylum.

Call for abstracts: Conference, "Economics and Psychology in Historical Perspective"

Mark D. White

Conference call for contributions

Economics and psychology in historical perspective

(from 18th century to the present)

Paris, December 17th - December 19th 2014

Organized by Mikaël Cozic (UPEC, IUF & IHPST, France) and Jean-Sébastien Lenfant (U. Lille 1, France)



Notification of interest: June 10th 2014

Deadline for abstract:  July 10th 2014

Notification of acceptance: August 31th 2014

Full paper: December 1st 2014



Erik Angner (George Mason university, USA), Richard Arena (Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis), Laurie Bréban (Université Paris 8, France), Luigino Bruni (Università Lumsa a Roma, Italy), Annie L. Cot (Université Paris 1, France), Agnès Festré (Université de Picardie Jules Verne, France), Till Grüne Yanoff (Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden), Alessandro Innocenti (Università di Siena, Italy), Ivan Moscati (Insubria University, Italy), Annika Wallin (Lunds Universitet, Sweden).


Philippe MONGIN (CNRS & HEC Paris, France), Floris HEUKELOM (U. Nijmegen, Netherdlands), Robert SUGDEN (University of East Anglia, United Kingdom).


“Psychology is evidently at the basis of political economy and, in general, of all the social sciences. A day will come when we will be able to deduce the laws of the social science from the principles of psychology” (Pareto, Manual of Political Economy, 1909, II, §1)

Neoclassical economics was built upon a theory of rational behavior that pretended to be independent from psychological foundations. Actually, Pareto, who has been instrumental in laying the foundations of modern utility and rational choice theory, uphold that economics and psychology needed to develop separately and that the hopes for reconciling psychology, economics and sociology in the social sciences “still remain some way off”.

Over thirty years or so, an important part of economics has been oriented towards realizing Pareto’s prophecy that a day would come when economics and psychology would benefit from reconciling each others, opening the way for a better understanding of individual and collective behaviors. This reconciliation comes after a period of time during which economics has developed its tools and principles away from psychology (or so the standard narrative argues), on the mere assumption that rational behavior could be described satisfactorily with a well-behaved utility function. For many economists, the offspring of this collective effort is called “behavioral economics”, and it is sometimes viewed a new paradigm in economics, providing tools and principles that may be applied to different fields of economic inquiry (finance, development economics, game theory, etc.).

Basics of behavioral economics are now part of any curricula in economics. The advent of behavioral economics has often been associated with a story-telling argument about its early development in the 1970s and its establishment, focusing on three main points: 1) the legitimization of experimental methods in economics; 2) the usefulness of concepts and ideas borrowed from psychology to increase the explanatory or predictive power of the theory of rational behavior; 3) the advent of a renewed view of human behavior and hence of new ideas in normative economics.

Actually, Pareto’s opening quotation reminds us also that psychology (in different guises) has been a fundamental issue for economists even since 18th century, if only because economists have usually grounded their own theory of economics on some ideas about human nature, and especially on human desires and beliefs.

In recent years, historians of economic thought and theoreticians have shown an interest in understanding the ins and outs of the behavioral turn in economics, and more broadly, on the introduction of psychological elements in economic explanations. Some have focused on recent history, enhancing the different trends of behavioral economics. Others have dealt with the nascent of behavioral economics and the early collaboration between economists and psychologists in the 1950s. Still some others have tried to understand how the marginalist school of thought had relied on the experimental psychology of its time—namely psychophysics—and how it had progressively been expelled out of the realm of economics, at least temporarily, with Pareto and Fisher. However, those contributions have not been coordinated and we are far from having a comprehensive overview of the complex history of the relationships between economics and psychology.

The aim of this conference is to gather contributions from historians of economics and historians of psychology (including cognitive sciences), and also from historically-oriented researchers and philosophers of these disciplines. The overall ambition is to understand the way economics has dealt with psychological arguments, methods and concepts throughout history and to highlight the main debates between economists and psychologists that have fostered and are still fostering behavioral economics. It is hoped that these will pave the way for an overall vision of the history of the relationships between economics and psychology and of the methodological transformations of economics as a discipline.

The organizers wish to limit the number of contributions so that most of the conference will take place in plenary sessions. Interested contributors are asked to indicate their interest in participating to the conference to A COMPLETER. The deadline for submitting an abstract is July 10th 2014. It is hoped that the contributions to the conference will in turn lead to the publication of a comprehensive reference book with short versions of papers and to thematic issues in journals.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of topics, authors and schools of thought:

  • Psychology in economics before the marginalist revolution (Hume, Smith, Condillac, Quesnay)
  • Psychophysics, psychology and the (pre)marginalists (Gossen, Jevons, Walras, Marshall, Edgeworth, Pareto and Fisher, psychology in the Austrian tradition)
  • Psychologists, economists, and the birth and development of experimental psychology (1850-1950)
  • Psychology in the institutionalist and Keynesian schools of thought (Veblen, Mitchell, J.M Clark, Keynes, Duesenberry, Post-Keynesian school).
  • How psychologists came to study decision and choice after World War II (Edwards, Davidson, Luce, Suppes, Siegel, etc).
  • The role and importance of ‘mathematical psychology’ and of the ‘representational theory of measurement’
  • Allais’s paradox and other decision paradoxes from the point of view of economics and psychology.
  • National traditions in the development of “economic psychology” (in relation with social psychology) and early behavioral economics in the USA (Katona, Simon), France, Germany, England, Italy, etc.
  • How psychologists have been involved in the development of behavioral economics and alternative paradigms to study economic behavior (e.g. Kahneman, Tversky, Slovic, Gigerenzer)?
  • Did economics borrow concepts and laws from psychology or did they rather borrow methods?
  • What has been the influence of behavioral sciences, marketing and business studies on the development of behavioral economics?
  • What have been the effects of behavioral economics on public policy? Which role played public policy in the development of behavioral economics?
  • What have been the after effects of behavioral economics on the representation of utility and welfare? (Pigou, Boulding, Scitovsky, Easterlin, Happiness economics)
  • How has behavioral economics come into different fields of economics (finance, development economics, health economics, social choice, public economics, normative economics)?
  • The historical development of neuroeconomics and its links with psychology.
  • The role of normative considerations in the development of behavioral economics, and the links between normative and behavioral economics.

If you are interested in participating in this conference, please send a notification of interest mentioning the theme of your contribution by June 10th 2014 and an abstract of approximately 1000 words prepared for blind review by July 10th 2014. Send your abstract by email at  with the following information:

Name and surname


Title of your contribution


Zywicki and Smith examine the effect of behavioral law-and-economics on consumer financial protection

Mark D. White

Courtesy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Todd Zywicki and Adam C. Smith have a new paper titled "Behavior, Paternalism, and Policy: Evaluating Consumer Finance Protection," in which they critique the impact of behavioral law-and-economics on the creation and operation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:

This paper examines the relationship between behavioral law and economics (BLE) as a policy
prescription platform and its influence on the regulations emerging from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). We show how these regulations are inconsistent with the intent and purpose of improving consumer choices. We further demonstrate that the selective modeling of behavioral bias in the BLE framework causes an overestimation of the ability of regulators, who in actuality use inefficient, heavy-handed rules based on little if any real empirical findings of “consumer irrationality.” Accordingly, the broader lesson on the misapplication of behavioral economics goes beyond the ill-considered policies emerging from the CFPB.

Near the end of the introduction (on p. 7), they detail their issues with this approach to consumer protection:

1. Political realities belie the attempts of behavioral theorists to construct policy corrections.
2. Actual political decision-making is susceptible to a number of distorting influences, most importantly bureaucratic overreach, behavioral bias on the part of the policymaker, and lack of appropriate information regarding consumer choices.
3. Bureaucrats do not hold the same preferences about political outcomes as behavioral theorists do. They are affected by self-interest like anyone else, which can cause deviations from prescribed policy measures.
4. Regulations based on behavioral findings tend to lean toward heavier forms of intervention that eliminate viable, alternative forms of exchange, thus impeding innovation and creativity in the marketplace. This in turn limits the overall amount of market activity (in this case consumer credit).
5. Policymakers are unlikely to incorporate evidence-based analysis into their decisionmaking in a manner consistent with the scientific method. Instead, policymakers are susceptible to “confirmation bias” in evaluating evidence.

I emphasize #2 and #5 and the CFPB itself in The Manipulation of Choice—in particular the last point in #2 about information—but Zywicki and Smith delve much more deeply and broadly into problems with the CFPB itself, contributing a much needed public choice perspective to the issue and concluding with recommendations to improve the operation of the CFPB. This is an essential read for anyone interested in behavioral law-and-economics or "nudges," regulation, or paternalism in general, as well as the CFPB in particular.

Special issue of Economics and Philosophy on the work of Amartya Sen

Mark D. White

SenThe first issue of Economics and Philosophy in 2014 (30/1) is a special issue on "Themes from the Work of Amartya Sen: Identity, Rationality, and Justice." For the time being the symposium articles are open access. The symposium articles and abstracts follow:

Amartya Sen, "Justice and Identity"

This paper discusses the relationship between justice and identity. While it is widely agreed that justice requires us to go beyond loyalty to our simplest identity – being just oneself – there is less common ground on how far we must go beyond self-centredness. How relevant are group identities to the requirements of justice, or must we transcend those too? The author draws attention to the trap of confinement to nationality and citizenship in determining the requirements of justice, particularly under the social-contract approach, and also to the danger of exclusive concentration on some other identity such as religion and race. He concludes that it is critically important to pay attention to every human being's multiple identities related to the different groups to which a person belongs; the priorities have to be chosen by reason, rather than any single identity being imposed on a person on grounds of some extrinsic precedence. Justice is closely linked with the pursuit of impartiality, but that pursuit has to be open rather than closed, resisting closure through nationality or ethnicity or any other allegedly all-conquering single identity.

Mozaffar Qizilbash, "Identity, Reason and Choice"

In criticizing communitarian views of justice, Amartya Sen argues that identity is not merely a matter of discovery but an object of reasoned choice subject to constraints. Distinguishing three notions of identity – self-perception, perceived identity and social affiliation – I claim that the relevant constraints implied by this argument are minimal. Some of Sen's arguments about perceived identity and social context do not establish any further constraints. Sen also argues that a model of multiculturalism and some forms of education can restrict, or fail to promote, reasoned and informed identity choice. This argument is better understood in the light of Sen's work on capability and justice, notably his concern with ways in which underdogs can adapt and his emphasis on public reasoning. It highlights limitations on information and opportunities for reasoning. I suggest that these lead to genuine constraints on (reasoned and informed) identity choice. The paper focuses on Sen's work, though its claims are also relevant to George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton's analysis of identity.

Ann E. Cudd, "Commitment as Motivation: Amartya Sen's Theory of Agency and the Explanation of Behavior"

This paper presents Sen's theory of agency, focusing on the role of commitment in this theory as both problematic and potentially illuminating. His account of some commitments as goal-displacing gives rise to a dilemma given the standard philosophical theory of agency. Either commitment-motivated actions are externally motivated, in which case they are not expressions of agency, or such actions are internally motivated, in which case the commitment is not goal-displacing. I resolve this dilemma and accommodate his view of commitment as motivation by developing a broader descriptive theory of agency, which recognizes both agent goal-directed and goal-displacing commitments. I propose a type of goal-displacing commitment, which I call ‘tacit commitment’, that can be seen to fit between the horns. Tacit commitments regulate behaviour without being made conscious and explicit. This resolution suggests a means of bridging the normative/descriptive gap in social-scientific explanation.

Rutger Claassen, "Capability Paternalism"

A capability approach prescribes paternalist government actions to the extent that it requires the promotion of specific functionings, instead of the corresponding capabilities. Capability theorists have argued that their theories do not have much of these paternalist implications, since promoting capabilities will be the rule, promoting functionings the exception. This paper critically surveys that claim. From a close investigation of Nussbaum's statements about these exceptions, it derives a framework of five categories of functionings promotion that are more or less unavoidable in a capability theory. It argues that some of these categories may have an expansionary dynamic; they may give rise to widespread functionings promotion, which would defeat the capabilitarian promise that paternalist interventions will be exceptions to the rule of a focus on capabilities. Finally, the paper discusses three further theoretical issues that will be decisive in holding this paternalist tendency in check: how high one sets threshold levels of capability protection, how lengthy one's list of basic capabilities is, and how one deals with individual responsibility for choices resulting in a loss of one's capabilities.

Ian Carter, "Is the Capabilities Approach Paternalist?"

Capability theorists have suggested different, sometimes incompatible, ways in which their approach takes account of the value of freedom, each of which implies a different kind of normative relation between functionings and capabilities. This paper examines three possible accounts of the normative relation between functionings and capabilities, and the implications of each of these accounts in terms of degrees of paternalism. The way in which capability theorists apparently oscillate between these different accounts is shown to rest on an apparent tension between anti-paternalism (which favours an emphasis on capabilities) and anti-fetishism (which favours an emphasis on functionings). The paper then advances a fourth account, which incorporates a concern with the content-independent or ‘non-specific’ value of freedom. Only the fourth account would remove all traces of paternalism from the capability approach. Whatever reasons advocates of the capability approach might have had for rejecting this fourth account, those reasons are not internal to the capability approach itself.

The arbitrariness of well-being measures: family mealtimes and Facebook enrollment

Mark D. White

Family eatingLast week I submitted the manuscript for a book that argues that all measures of well-being or happiness are arbitrary and reflect the judgments of those who designed them, rather than the interests of the people whose well-being is ostensibly measured. (A precis of sorts for the book appeared in this article, published late last year.)

Last week The Telegraph provided a perfect (if a bit outrageous) example of this in an article titled "Family mealtimes to become official measure of national ‘happiness’." The article begins:

Eating meals together as a family is to be officially recognised as a mark of happiness as part of David Cameron’s plan to measure Britain’s national “well-being”.

For the first time, the number British families who maintain traditional mealtimes is to be monitored, under plans to expand the so-called “happiness” index.

Children as young as 10 are to be asked how often they argue with their parents and whether they are being bullied at school, including Internet bullying.

They will also be asked to share how they feel about their personal appearance, whether they can confide in their parents about problems and whether they have signed up to social networking sites such as Facebook.

Before I get to the broader issue here, let me say that these "elements of happiness" are not uncontroversial. Family mealtimes are usually good, sure, but being signed up to Facebook? The latter has been linked with some measures of happiness, and some have even questioned the mental health of people who aren't on Facebook. But this is hardly a settled matter, and it seems hasty (at best) to suggesting using Facebook enrollment in official government statistics meant to guide policymaking. (I hope you can appreciate the self-restraint required in keeping this paragraph relatively snark-free.)

There are good arguments for composite indices of well-being (such as the United Nations' Human Development Index), but this latest effort by the British government seems more like a kitchen sink approach to measuring well-being. Are public policy decisions seriously going to be taken based on Facebook enrollment and family mealtime frequency? Do British policymakers actually think this will capture the well-being of their citizens accurately enough to guide policy decisions in their interests?

Clearly somebody feels that these aspects of life are important to the well-being of the British people. This is what philosopher Sissela Bok meant when, in her book Exploring Happiness, she compared happiness measures to Rorschach tests: they often reveal more about those who designed them then about those whose happiness they are used to assess. The question is whether any haphazard collection of statistics about daily life—even those shown to have some connection to some measure of well-being—can hope to accurately capture the interests of any one person, much less a nation's entire population, in order to ground responsible and effective policy decisions.

In the article linked above and my forthcoming book, I argue that the answer is a resounding no. A person's interests are complex, multifaceted, and subjective, and they're combined and balanced in ever-shifting ways by his or her judgment before they issue in a choice that reflects them. No statistical measure of happiness or well-being can even begin to approach people's true interests, and governments should stop pretending they can. This practice is ineffective, wasteful, and—more important—disrespectful to their citizens' right to live their lives as they wish (consistent with all other dong the same).

Instead, I argue that governments should focus on restructing laws and other institutions to enable the maximal freedom possibe for people to pursue their own interests, while focusing on addressing problems that present themselves—minimizing suffering where it exists rather than trying to maximize well-being according to measures they invent.

Another day, another article defending nudge (but missing the point)

Mark D. White

Recently it was David Brooks, today it's Peter Reiner writing at Slate, reporting that people are less opposed to nudges the more they align with their interests, and interpreting this as weakening the case for autonomy.

Using the crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk, we polled 2,775 people, asking them to what degree they were willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes when presented with nudges that helped with everything from healthier food choices to spending money more wisely. The short answer is just what one might expect: Sometimes they liked the nudges and other times they didn’t. When we presented people with nudges that clearly allowed them to deliberate on the issue—to fully authenticate the decision—participants in our surveys were more receptive than when the nudges appeared to manipulate them by tapping into subconscious thinking. But overall people were not terribly averse to being gently pushed in the “right” direction. Apparently, autonomy is not quite as exalted a value as libertarians might believe.

In fact, this reinforces the value of autonomy, which is more about having a measure of control over how one's life is conducted rather than simply making individual choices freely, and easily encompasses self-constraint if freely chosen. The people above preferred nudges that were consistent with autonomy, those that "clearly allowed them to deliberate on the issue" and "fully authenticate the decision." These are not, however, your ordinary nudges, which subvert the rational decision-making process, relying on cognitive biases and heuristics to generate their intended effect.

Also, like Brooks, Reiner does not seem to appreciate that the interests promoted by nudges are not people's own interests, but rather policymakers' idea of those interests (as I explain in The Manipulation of Choice). Again, Reiner states that "when people recognized that their objectives in life aligned with the nudge and knew that they were struggling with achieving that objective, they generally endorsed the nudge" (emphasis in original). Of course they did, again consistent with autonomy and choice. If Mary is trying to lose weight, she may very well appreciate a nudge that promises to help her eat less and exercise more. Her approval of this is akin to joining Weight Watchers: a deliberate action to constrain her own choices, which is a reflection of her autonomy as well as a recognition of her own lack of self-control. This doesn't imply, however, that she'd welcome the nudge being forced on her; even if the nudge is truly in her interests, she may still value the option of approving the nudge herself.

Reiner ends with:

In a world awash with temptation, a mark of wisdom might be taking a hard look at ourselves and understanding the reality of our natural strengths and weaknesses. Were we to do so, we would likely welcome a helpful nudge now and then.

"Now and then," yes, but we rarely have the choice. In cases such as Mary's, we often  recognize our own strengths and weakness and many of us welcome some help, whether in the form of nudges or not. The problem with most nudges, such as the paradigm cases in Thaler and Sunstein's book, is that they are not voluntarily chosen nor are they made apparent to the decision-maker. They are "helpful" only in the sense that someone else thinks we need help, because we are not making the choices they would have us make—in their idea of our interests.

Mary might approve of a weight-loss nudge, but her friend Martha may not, feeling that it does not align with her interests. She prefers to exercise her autonomy by making her own choices free of paternalistic manipulation. Does she need "help"? Does she have a choice?

David Brooks on libertarian paternalism and "nudge"

Mark D. White

In today's New York Times, David Brooks comments on libertarian paternalism in "The Nudge Debate." There is not a lot in his article that is surprising or unreasonable, but it does suffer from some vagueness and misunderstandings. For instance, Mr. Brooks conflates interventions of a paternalistic nature (such as nudging people into retirement plans) and those of a nonpaternalistic nature (such as nudging people into registering for organ donation). While the mechanisms in both cases are similar—and raise the same issues of unconscious manipulation and subversion of rational decision-making processes—the purposes and motivations are very different, with only the former involving the policymakers substituting their interests for those of the decision-makers themselves.

Of more concern is Mr. Brooks' contention that libertarian paternalism does not involve value substitution. He writes,

Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do.

As I explain in The Manipulation of Choice, there is no way for the government to know what we value well enough to help us make decisions in our own interests. Because they lack this information, policymakers necessarily impose their idea of people's interests on them when they design nudges. Policymakers think that it's in our interests to save more; policymakers think that it's in our interests to drink less soda. These are not unreasonable assumptions, of course, but they are assumptions nonetheless, and it is pure hubris on the part of policymakers to presume that they bear any necessary relationship to people's actual interests.

Because Mr. Brooks apparently doesn't recognize this, he concedes the "theoretical" point but dismisses any real-world concerns:

I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically. In theory, it is possible that gentle nudges will turn into intrusive diktats and the nanny state will drain individual responsibility.

But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. 

This last paragraph is illuminating, because it conflates three different types of nudges. The first, organ donation, is a social issue; such a nudge is not paternalistic and therefore does not raise any issues of value substitution (though, as I said above, the mechanism still subverts rational processes). The third, self-commitment, is vague; there is nothing manipulative in the concept of commitment, but if such commitment is elicited using a nudge that bypasses a person's rational decision-making faculties, then it's a problem. Only the cafeteria example is by definition a paternalistic intervention; Mr. Brooks may not be insulted by the management of the cafeteria putting their idea of his interests above his own and manipulating his actions in those imposed interests, but that does not justify an action which would insult many others.

Finally, I do not see the issue of libertarian paternalism as one of theory versus empirics—in the case of paternalistic interventions, the theory iself discounts any attempts to measure its success. Mr. Brooks finishes the paragraph above with this sentence: "The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections." In the case of paternalistic interventions, the "theoretical objections" render any "concrete benefits" questionable and inherently unverifiable. How do you measure the "concrete benefits" of an action meant to improve people's choices according to their own interests if you have no way to ascertain those interests? Such knowledge is necessary in order to "verify" any benefits from such a program. With socially-motivated nudges, like automatic enrollment in organ donation programs, this makes some sense, but with measures explicitly intended to "help" people better make decisions in their own interests, the idea of verifying "concrete benefits" makes no sense whatsoever, given the inherent subjectivity of those interests.

Rather than an issue of theory versus evidence, the nudge debate is a matter of autonomy. Each person's right to further his or her own interests, in a way consistent with all others doing the same, is violated by policymakers who impose their own conception of people's interests on them and then design policy tools that subvert people's rational decision-making processes to steer them towards those imposed interests. Given Mr. Brooks' antipathy towards individualism, I am not surprised that he disregards concerns about autonomy as an "abstract theoretical objection." To some, however, the right to pursue their own interests without the government questioning them is a very "concrete benefit" to living in a free society.

Then again, if policymakers really knew our true interests, they'd know that already, wouldn't they?

Paternalism in Packaging

Jonathan B. Wight

A column in today's New York Times argues that public policy should indeed be paternalistic with regard to product packaging. This topic has been covered extensively on this blog (here, here, here, here, and here).

Similar to the "super-sizing" soda law attempted by Mayor Bloomberg, Ezekiel J. Emanuel argues that public policy should ban the super-sizing of over-the-counter drugs associated with accidental overdoses and suicides.

Emanuel argues:

"We need to make it harder to buy pills in bottles of 50 or 100 that can be easily dumped out and swallowed. We should not be selling big bottles of Tylenol and other drugs that are typically implicated in overdoses, like prescription painkillers and Valium-type drugs, called benzodiazepines. Pills should be packaged in blister packs of 16 or 25. Anyone who wanted 50 would have to buy numerous blister packages and sit down and push out the pills one by one. Turns out you really, really have to want to commit suicide to push out 50 pills. And most people are not that committed."

There are interesting issues here that go beyond behavioral economics. People can sometimes act irrationally and not achieve the outcomes they desire. Paternalists would like to help them achieve their goals by forcing them to take an action that produces the result the person intends.

But in this case people who intend to commit suicide want to buy super-sized pill bottles, which is a rational action if that is the goal. Emanuel argues that paternalism is justified in this case because the desire to commit suicide either is transitory or it is weak. People are not committed enough to the goal to do the hard work of breaking apart blister packs. Paternalism in this case raises the time cost of self-destruction. Emanuel reports that:

"In September 1998, Britain changed the packaging for paracetamol, the active ingredient in Tylenol, to require blister packs for packages of 16 pills when sold over the counter in places like convenience stores, and for packages of 32 pills in pharmacies. The result: a study by Oxford University researchers showed that over the subsequent 11 or so years, suicide deaths from Tylenol overdoses declined by 43 percent, and a similar decline was found in accidental deaths from medication poisonings. In addition, there was a 61 percent reduction in liver transplants attributed to Tylenol toxicities."