Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

9 thoughts

  1. My first thought upon reading your review was to run for the dictionary, where i came up with:
    Paternalism (American Heritage)
    A policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.
    Thaler and Sunstein seem to be embracing a vision of the state that takes an active part in ensuring the well-being of its citizens (fatherly), without giving them particular rights or responsibilities in setting up those choices (only to opt out of them once they are set up). It is one of the key incites of the book that many people would not CHOOSE to have their choice architecture set up the way it should be set up, but that having it done for them results positively, by the their own judgement.
    Second, I think T+S get some wiggle room in defining paternalism, given that at heart it simply refers to being fatherly, which doesn’t have to imply coercion. I guess I would ask, what political ideology do you think these insights of behavior economics DO fit under? Insofar as they offer something new (though surely not revolutionary), why not given them a catchy, easy-to-use title?
    Third, Nudge does argue for regulation and coercion of businesses, though in ways many libertarians might accept. Certainly the idea that the federal government should be paying money to inform citizens about their energy usage does not fit smoothly into Libertarian ideology (nor does forcing companies to offer RECAP to their customers).
    Finally, for someone well versed in behavioral economics, Nudge seems like nothing new. But as a powerful reflection on what behavioral econ can do to better our public policy choices, Nudge is the best of the bunch (and yes, there are a bunch of similar books. But why is that a criticism of Nudge?). And you don’t have too look much farther than the presidential debates to see that simple, nonpartisan steps to solving entrenched public policy problems need more publicity, not less.
    nitpick (American Heritage): to be excessively concerned with or critical of inconsequential details.

  2. Your critique is very well-thought out, but it seems that you are not addressing, what seems to me, the other commenter’s central critique: sometimes there must be a “default”: In those few cases, “choice architecture” is unavoidable, because it isn’t a matter of something or nothing but always something or something else. Might Sunstein’s and Thaler’s arguments are convincing for those few cases?

  3. Sunstein suffers from language problems perennially. His problem is that he wants to seem more provocative and interesting than he actually is. So, in The Cost of Rights, we get a terribly confused argument that all rights are positive because enforcing them requires a positive right of assistance. What he should have said was that many rights are negative (i.e., what it takes to respect the right is for people to refrain from certain behaviors), but in order for negative rights to have much worth, be enjoyed, and be enforced, you need government to supply the rule of law. But Sunstein doesn’t want to say that, because it doesn’t sound nearly as cool as saying all rights are positive.
    Sunstein is a pretty good legal theorist, I guess, but whenever he has the choice between (philosophical rigor + clarity) and provocativeness, he takes the latter.

  4. Excellent review. But if Sunstein-Thaler advocate opt-ins and -outs where ex ante there was only mandatory acceptance of the operant “choice architecture,” it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be an “ideological advance”: It at least opens up the possibility of increasing our options (libertarians: “Yay!”) while preserving the action-guiding goals informed by a common conception of the good (liberals and conservatives: “Yay!”).

  5. I’ve taken a similar line on other work by Sunstein. More than once, I’ve been met with the shocked faces of University of Chicago law students, who can’t understand why I just don’t get that Sunstein is the very embodiment of Scholarship. (I once made the grave, and apparently gauche, error of truthfully declaring that a well-known philosopher was much more famous academically and, by my lights, more imporessive.)
    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against Sunstein. He’s clearly very, very smart and his academic work is very good. *Someone* has to examine the effects that the composition of a panel of appellate court judges (3 Republican appointees? 2? 1? None?) has on the appellate court’s decisionmaking. And the academic who does that research has made a far more valuable contribution to the stock of common knowledge than most (the vast majority?). It’s just that it’s not really interesting. And it doesn’t require or demonstrate genius. So, too, with choice architecture.
    That this sort of work — which is ground-level empirical stuff that should have been done decades ago — counts as cutting-edge in the legal academy speaks volumes about that “academy.”

  6. First of all, I really like the blog’s new look (and the blog generally of course). Secondly, I agree that S&T are engaging in the sort of “beyond left and right” (ugh) rhetoric that is worthy of a politician. Yet I don’t quite understand why “libertarian paternalism” is such innate conceptual contradiction and the ideas of “choice” (liberty) and “architecture” can be so easily reconciled. If choice can be designed/administrated, then what’s the problem with paternalism? The problem, it seems, is less whether or not choice is curtailed (it obviously is, and in a pretty profound manner) but rather the role of government. So: why is government administered choice so much worse than any other form (whether it evolves from culture or the contingencies of life)? S&T obviously want a _democratic_ government – built on transparency and accountability – to be promoting some choices and discouraging others, so we are quite a ways away from any kind of totalitarianism here (the importance they place on individual choice, as a value, is clear enough evidence of this). What’s the problem with this form of paternalism then? Is it really the intentions behind it? (What do those matter?) Some slippery slope argument? (Once we’ve admitted choice is always hindered, aren’t we already on that slope?)

  7. “Simply learning more about mind and motivation can do a lot in helping us understand how people will tend to act in various kinds of contexts.”
    Some of “us” already “understand how people will tend to act in various kinds of contexts.”
    But it’s the hegemony of the non-vaginally endowed that are all atwitter about nudge in their discussions amongst themselves within the siloed walls of academia.

  8. With every day that passes, I am reminded of why so many French aristocrats lost their collective heads so quickly.
    When will we acknowledge the pure avarice and greed that marks anything that comes from Washington, or Wall Street for that matter? When will we realize just how close we are to becoming a failed state; the respect, imagination that were once our greatest asset falling faster than the gloaming sun?
    When will the average American, stirred by the arroganct chant of “USA, USA, USA” be so damaged and used up as to demand better?
    It is unquestionable that the pathetic panic that we find ourselves in, along with one we onced called hero, has gotten us to this point precisely because no one, not the politicians nor this country’s citizens, takes anything seriously enough to search for the reasons behind our troubles and demand change.
    It will be fascinating to see if we, by default, elect wisdom, or belly up to the trough and say, “More please.”
    So please, when defending this newcomer whose actions reek of something even more frightening than what we have endured, perhaps permanently, in the past eight years, acknowledge her ignorance, and that albeit personable, her golden tone, her non-answers, her ignorance-is-bliss rhetoric the sees a better future with more of the same, is like the golden bell of truth, it rings oh so hollow and has degraded into the thinness of tin.

  9. TomGrey – Slovakia – An American in Slovakia, a libertarian Republican economy oriented pro-life semi-political blogger. Both developed countries and the whole world need a market economy that supports normal families. A voluntary National Service, that offers a job for everyone, is the kind of support a market economy could use.
    TomGrey says:

    Here’s my Grey’s Law:
    Whenever an economic model of price/ investment behavior is accurate enough to consistently allow above average risk-adjusted returns from some behavior, the amount of that behavior will increase until the model breaks.
    If you can consistently make money with some model, it will change behavior, and the parameters of the model — so that the model breaks.
    Strategic agents change their behavior. This is perhaps a lemma of the “Random Walk down Wall Street” issue, where agents change behavior to break models that are working.

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