Libertarian Paternalism: Nudge vs. Push

Cass Sunstein, head of something called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House, wants to improve America through subtle manipulation.  A recent NYT accounting:

The office, known in Washington as OIRA, reviews major regulations written by federal agencies (on matters like the environment, the financial system, Medicare and Medicaid and public health and safety). Republicans have seen OIRA as a powerful tool to check the regulatory instincts of some agencies. But Sunstein wants to use OIRA to make regulations more supple, not less robust. Government regulations can operate at the level of philosophy, elaborating how you weigh the interest of the individual against that of society, of the present against the future. Sunstein’s influence at OIRA might help give the government a University of Chicago mind.

[…]

In “Nudge,” a popular book that he wrote with the influential behavioral economist Richard Thaler, Sunstein elaborated a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism.” Conservative economists have long stressed that because people are rational, the best way for government to serve the public is to guarantee a fair market and to otherwise get out of the way. But in the real world, Sunstein and Thaler argue, people are subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. They also argue that this human quality, which some would call irrationality, can be predicted and — this is the controversial part — that if the social environment can be changed, people might be nudged into more rational behavior.

Libertarian paternalists would have school cafeterias put the fruit before the fried chicken, because students are more likely to grab the first food they see. They support a change in Illinois law that asks drivers renewing their licenses to choose whether they want to be organ donors. The simple act of having to choose meant that more people signed up. Ideas like these, taking human idiosyncrasies into account, might revive an old technocratic hope: that society could be understood so perfectly that it might be improved. The elaboration of behavioral economics, which seeks to uncover the ways in which people are predictably irrational, “is the most exciting intellectual development of my lifetime,” Sunstein told me.

Maybe so, but the paradox of libertarian paternalism is that it terrifies both libertarians and paternalists. (Its natural audience is professors, who often love it.) Conservatives see a Big Brother strain in Sunstein’s philosophy (Glenn Beck called him “the most dangerous guy out there”), while some liberals worry that behavioral economics is too immature to handle the weight of guiding policy. “Right now we’re in a Keynesian moment,” William Galston, a longtime Democratic Party insider who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me after Obama took office. “We’re not going to nudge the system back. We’ll drag it back.”

Bill Dyer is one of the conservative skeptics.

But you have to understand: by “nudge,” Sunstein means “turning your life into something run the way he and his ilk think it should be run” — nothing less than that.

It is the nanny state. It is the statist impossible utopia that Barack Obama and folks like Sunstein have in their pointy heads as the America they want to build, as they systematically dismantle everything in the America that exists.

“Libertarian paternalism” is an oxymoron. What Sunstein and Obama are doing is just arrogant paternalism, period. Instead of anything remotely resembling real libertarianism, Sunstein’ promoting the notion of government regulation so subtle, so perceptive, so … well, just so damned clever that it won’t really seem like much of a bother to do what Sunstein and Obama and the government want you to do. You’ll think it’s your own idea!

‘Cause they’re smarter than you and me, see? Get it? If you don’t, then just keep clinging to your guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like you or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment. Something. You moron, why do you think you’re even remotely qualified to run your own life? Sheesh.

Bill follows this with a [/sarcasm off] and I’m unsure whether it refers simply to the last paragraph or to his tone in general.  Either way, I’m hard pressed to get too exercised about presenting people with choices — which, indeed, seem to actually be choices — in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood of them making the one society hopes they make.

If Sunstein were mandating that Safeway display chicken and tofu prominently while forcing customers to ask the butcher to show them steak, I’d agree that this isn’t libertarian at all.  But, if the state is going to serve lunch to children — which is already pretty paternalistic and choice limiting — I’m not sure what’s wrong with putting the healthier choices first in the queue.  (Indeed, when I was in school, we took whatever they put on the tray, with our only choices being eat/trade/throw away.)

Similarly, if the state is going to license driving — and I think it should — and going to use the resultant ID card as a means of identifying organ donors — and I don’t really see what the harm is there — then what’s the problem with making it easier for people to choose YES?  Now, if the default were YES and it was made a giant hassle to change it to NO, then that would be outside the realm of libertarianism and statist indeed.  (Although I think we’ll be there sooner rather than later.  I can certainly see us deciding that our right to control our corpses from beyond is outweighed by the urgent need for organs to save lives.  But that would be paternalism without a libertarian modifier.)

That said, Bill’s larger point has merit.  The changes mentioned here are both subtle modifications to things government already controls and in a direction I support.  But, as Charles Austin asked in relation to Heinz changing its ketchup recipe ahead of pressure from government, “Is there anything beyond the purview of the federal government? Anything at all?”  It’s not at all clear to me where we draw the line on the things that little-known bureaucrats operating out of almost-completely-unknown offices in the White House (or, actually, the Executive Office Building across the street) can “nudge” us about.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    But, as Charles Austin asked in relation to Heinz changing its ketchup recipe ahead of pressure from government, “Is there anything beyond the purview of the federal government? Anything at all?”

    If we’re talking economic regulation, then after Raich vs. Gonzalez, maybe not.

  2. john personna says:

    I read of these asymmetries in human choices as I read books and blogs on behavioral economics. At that point it wasn’t a political question at all. That came later.

    At the time it was just really interesting that people would make two such different choices about organ donation based on a default. And as you say, if something gentle like a default encourages people, why not?

    I sense that the conservatives who push back against “nudge” didn’t learn about it the same way I did. They didn’t read the economics first. They heard of this as a big liberal threat, coming down through the conservative meme machine.

    I think the worry that a different tool will expand the coverage of government is a little weird as well. We had organ donor cards, right? It wasn’t Sunstein’s idea to use them.

  3. john personna says:

    You know, behavioral economics is really about human nature as it is. Being real about that should not make government worse. It should make it a bit more in touch.

  4. john personna says:

    You might be a redneck conservative if – you prefer badly designed government programs, because they validate your identity.

    You might be a redneck conservative if – you oppose better government programs, because they undermine your position.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Unless things have changed since I first checked the organ donor card in Illinois, you still need your family to approve the donation, which is why all the literature emphasized discussing your wishes with your family.

    Whether or not that is still the case, these little nudges tend to depend on the exact circumstances of the situation. Federalization and standardization, no. Information, yes.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I appear to be wrong, Illinois law changed recently and like almost all states, the donor’s consent is binding. (Though some still think there is liability risk for the hospital) I still think this skips over the important issue of family consent over end-of-life decisions, which can still moot donation. I wonder how many people won’t discuss these larger end-of-life attitudes now that the state has made this unnecessary?

    And since when did ketchup take on the importance of a serving of vegetable. It’s a condiment. Nudge = making it easier for politicians to take credit for meaningless stuff and ignoring the harder stuff (like the greater importance of live donation)

  7. Herb says:

    I got a code violation notice from the city for not mowing the grass in my alley.

    Is that nanny statism too? I’m just asking because it seems conservatives get all excited over paternalism on the federal level, but will shrug off the paternalism on a state or city level.

    I mean, it’s nice that they’ll defend my right to eat salty ketchup.

    But where are the libertarians defending my right to have long grass in the alley?

  8. steve says:

    Dyer very carefully avoids dealing with the actual argument. Nudging works best whenever there is a default decision. Many defaults are set by a bureaucrat without any thought about the consequences. Why not set the defaults to something that would be beneficial to most people? The foods have to go somewhere, so why not put the healthier ones first?

    Nudging, as Sunstein and Thaler describe it, would not be telling people what to do, just making it easier to choose better outcomes. Sometimes just making people aware that they have other choices. I will concede that I am probably biased here since I work in medicine. I see lots and lots of irrational choices and behaviors. We end up nudging all of the time, ie setting our default option to the one with the best evidence for success/improvement.

    Steve

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Either way, I’m hard pressed to get too exercised about presenting people with choices — which, indeed, seem to actually be choices — in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood of them making the one society hopes they make.

    When the “nudge” comes in the form of additional choices or more information I’m all for it. When it’s a Hobson’s choice, not so much.

    I think there’s a deeper problem, though. Many of the reforms come in the form of picking winners and losers. Subsidizing the winners, taxing the losers. It’s inevitable that eventually a lot of the winners are those with political clout. That will always happen when decisions are made politically and it’s true whether the advocates are nanny-staters or alleged free marketers.

  10. john personna says:

    I got a code violation notice from the city for not mowing the grass in my alley.

    Do you really think that’s about someone’s drive to be “nanny?” And not just your neighbor’s concerns about property values?

    (It may be misapplied in an alley, or not, but I’m sure that ordnance grew from grass roots self-interest. A weedy yard has a negative externality.)

  11. PD Shaw says:

    How does nudge work with this background?:

    Small children tend to be neophobic: once they hit two or three, they shrink from new tastes. That makes sense, evolutionarily, because through much of human history that is the age at which children would have first begun to gather and forage for themselves, and those who strayed from what was known and trusted would never have survived.

    Gladwell on ketchup h/t sam

  12. john personna says:

    I think there’s a deeper problem, though. Many of the reforms come in the form of picking winners and losers. Subsidizing the winners, taxing the losers. It’s inevitable that eventually a lot of the winners are those with political clout. That will always happen when decisions are made politically and it’s true whether the advocates are nanny-staters or alleged free marketers.

    Huh? Is this even about “subsidizing the winners, taxing the losers” at all? Or are you applying a standard meme in the wrong context?

    Funny. The word “tax” didn’t even appear in this thread until your comment …

  13. john personna says:

    PD, travel channel says ketchup on hot dogs is a kid thing, and switching to mustard (and beyond) is a rite of passage. I kind of see that. Kids prefer sweets, post-adolescents prefer spice.

    (No need to nudge on ketchup, and I’ll remind you that government does not actually have an anti-ketchup policy. It’s a freedom thing. Folks are free to agitate against all sorts of things.)

  14. PD Shaw says:

    john persona, my quote to Gladwell was intended to raise a more general issue about how sticky food preferences are by the time nudge policies are considered.

    The ketchup change was the result of the National Salt Reduction Initiative, which is admittedly a soft-form of government. A number of things bother me about it though. One is that I suspect the new formulation will have more corn syrup. Another is that the studies on the health benefits of salt reduction in the general population are not very strong. It sort of feels like reducing the salt content in ketchup by 25% is an achievable goal, as opposed to dealing with overall calorie intake or a balanced diet. As you noted in the previous thread, Heinz is probably going to market it’s new formulation as healthier. Give me a break. It’s a condiment, damn it.

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    Funny. The word “tax” didn’t even appear in this thread until your comment …

    Sure it did. All government action comes in the form of subsidies, taxes, or, in the case of violations of the criminal code, forcible imprisonment. That’s government’s arsenal.

    When you say “nudge” you mean tax. Or subsidize.

  16. steve says:

    “When you say “nudge” you mean tax. Or subsidize.”

    So suggesting to schools, not requiring or its not nudging, that they put fruit first and fried chicken last in the food line is what, a subsidy? As far as I can tell, I would not be paying any more for this. I will concede that someone must pay for the research for some of this. Same for having organ donation as the default. I have a hard time seeing how that would cost me anything, though it could be seen, sort of (there is no direct money flowing), as a subsidy for organ donation.

    Steve

  17. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner: Thanks for the link. I’m sorry I was careless in omitting my “open-sarc” tag; it was indeed only the immediately preceding paragraph (the last one in your block quote) that I intended sarcastically.

    Steve: Dave Schuler’s right, “nudge” does generally mean “tax” or “subsidize” as Sunstein uses the term, although “punish” might be used as a synonym for “tax,” and he’s very clever at trying to hide or disguise or trivialize the government stick and carrot. These federal government regulations are almost never just “advisory,” and Cass Sunstein certainly didn’t jump from Harvard Law School to a government agency overseeing governmental regulations in order to give up power or become less relevant. If there’s not a monetary penalty, there’s typically a loss of eligibility for federal funds involved in his nudging.

    Dr. Joyner, you write:

    [I]f the state is going to serve lunch to children — which is already pretty paternalistic and choice limiting — I’m not sure what’s wrong with putting the healthier choices first in the queue….

    Similarly, if the state is going to license driving — and I think it should — and going to use the resultant ID card as a means of identifying organ donors — and I don’t really see what the harm is there — then what’s the problem with making it easier for people to choose YES? …

    My own four kids have chosen to take their lunches to school throughout their public-school educations, with their real parents overseeing what goes into the bag. Public schools, of course, used to be run at the level of local school districts. I am not so radical a libertarian as to argue for the abolition of public schools, but as a conservative libertarian committed to federalism, I prefer local control, and resent and resist the federal government’s involvement.

    More fundamentally, I don’t view it as a proper role for government at any level to be telling people what to eat or even to be telling people that they really ought to be donating their organs. Personally I’m all in favor of organ donation and healthy food for children, but that’s my (and my family members’) personal choice. There are private organizations that, if they’re devoted to such causes, can and should help educate people by entering into the marketplace of ideas and information, the result of which will often influence private choices in directions of which you or I might approve. But I don’t want a government bureaucrat in Washington — Cass Sunstein or his proxy — making the decision what order to offer up foods in the school lunchline.

    As for organ donations, existing law expressed and protected personal property rights by setting a default value in which an individual controls his body and can choose to provide for its disposition as part of his estate planning; failing a decision on the part of the individual and action to implement that decision, the law forbids the harvesting of body parts for transplants. That’s the law protecting personal choice, private property, and individual liberty.

    Now, it’s very hard to be “against transplants,” so it’s very hard to stand up and say, “I object to turning this necessary dealing with the state government when I get my driver’s license into a state-sponsored occasion to proselytize me into agreeing to donate my body parts.” But I do object; it’s not a proper role of government to preach at me to promote one version of what I ought to specify be done with my organs, even if there’s not a reward for complying or a penalty for refusing. And I definitely don’t want a government bureaucrat in Austin or Annapolis manipulating the law — changing the default from “opt-in” to “opt-out” — in order to govern what happens to parts of my corpse (which is, after all, another part of my estate) because the bureaucrat has decided that I’m just not paying enough attention to the welfare of potential organ donation recipients. This may be one of the more “enlightened” impositions of public-spirited behavior that could be forced upon me; but it’s still behavior being forced upon me, and it’s wrong for that reason regardless of what the behavior is.

  18. Michael says:

    I see this as the iTunes path. Before iTunes, it was significantly more difficult to legally obtain a single MP3 of a song you like, that it was to pirate it. iTunes leveled the playing field, and people chose the legal route in huge numbers. Switching to DRM-free downloads further improved things.

    I’ve always believed that if we make good choices as easy or easier to make than bad choices, people will overwhelmingly make good choices. But so many things these days are structured in a way that makes bad choices so much easier than good ones.

    Take the school lunch example. We want kids to choose fruit, but by placing fried chicken first, we’re asking them to go against their instincts in order to make the right choice. By putting fruit first, we no longer require them to fight those instincts, making the better choice easier to make.

    Now yes, this can easily be used to generate outcomes that politicians fine desirable, so it’s definitely not something to be taken lightly, or in secret. But as a general principle, making it easier to make good choices is, I think, a good idea.

  19. Michael says:

    More fundamentally, I don’t view it as a proper role for government at any level to be telling people what to eat or even to be telling people that they really ought to be donating their organs.

    I think you are overlooking the point. By offering school lunches and tracking organ donation registration, the government is already influencing the choices people are making. What is being proposed is making the government consider how the way it is offering those options is influencing the choices being made. This way the direction the government is influencing behavior is at least deliberate, and not accidental.

  20. Beldar says:

    By the way, the clerk at the DMV who’s insisting that you choose whether to be an organ donor or not when you renew your driver’s license is doing the exact same thing as the clerk at the convenience store who asks you to add a dollar for the convenience store corporation’s favorite charity. They’re both doing so upon pain of losing their job for failing to follow orders. So you want your convenience store clerk to leave you the hell alone, but it’s okay for your government to nag you? Or is it okay if convenience store clerks start nagging you to be an organ donor because that’s a really good thing?

  21. Michael says:

    Now, it’s very hard to be “against transplants,” so it’s very hard to stand up and say, “I object to turning this necessary dealing with the state government when I get my driver’s license into a state-sponsored occasion to proselytize me into agreeing to donate my body parts.”

    There’s a fine line between proselytizing and making the option more available to people who don’t know how to make the choice. How many people would know how to register as an organ donor without having been asked if they wanted to be an organ donor? I wouldn’t.

  22. john personna says:

    Funny. The word “tax” didn’t even appear in this thread until your comment …

    Sure it did. All government action comes in the form of subsidies, taxes, or, in the case of violations of the criminal code, forcible imprisonment. That’s government’s arsenal.

    Do you know what the sickest thing is? These studies show that you can get better outcomes without requiring them. It’s about how offering the choice, and framing the choice, is enough.

    We know that people don’t save enough for their retirement. It turns out that if a company defaults new employees into a 401k, rather than requiring them to opt-in, they save more. (This countered traditional rationa-actor expectations that given the same options the default would make no difference. People would choose their “preference.”)

    Now, you think some bizarre libertarian rant about all government action being conversion is a rational response to that? A constructive response?

    Jeez dude …

  23. john personna says:

    When you say “nudge” you mean tax. Or subsidize.

    That is factually false. You need to read a little here.

  24. Michael says:

    By the way, the clerk at the DMV who’s insisting that you choose whether to be an organ donor or not when you renew your driver’s license is doing the exact same thing as the clerk at the convenience store who asks you to add a dollar for the convenience store corporation’s favorite charity.

    Theoretically yes, they are both asking if you want to make a choice or not. In practice, however, the store doesn’t need to know if you want to give to charity or not, let alone collect the donation immediately, while the government at least has been given the task of helping doctors know what you want done in the event of your death.

  25. john personna says:

    “conversion” … I guess I meant “coercion”

  26. James Joyner says:

    By the way, the clerk at the DMV who’s insisting that you choose whether to be an organ donor or not when you renew your driver’s license is doing the exact same thing as the clerk at the convenience store who asks you to add a dollar for the convenience store corporation’s favorite charity.

    An interesting parallel that didn’t occur to me.

    The difference, I think, is that the government is already asking you to choose to be an organ donor but doing it inefficiently. To the extent it’s government’s job to get people to indicate their preference ahead of time — on the assumption that it’s too late when you’re a candidate to donate — it makes sense to ask in the way most likely to generate a Yes answer.

    On the other hand, it’s inconceivable to me why a retail outlet needs to collect charitable contributions from me.

  27. john personna says:

    PD, I missed the National Salt Reduction Initiative. Now that I look it up, it seems kind of bottom up (led by the City of New York), but my state’s health department has signed on (interesting list of supporters).

    From their FAQ:

    Are you asking food makers to reduce all their products to the same level? Won’t that take the variety out of our food supply?

    No, the NSRI leaves room for a range of high- and low-salt products. It aims to reduce the overall sodium load in our diets by shifting the average within each food category. A company making several types of crackers would not have to maintain the same sodium level in each of them. The goal is sell a mix of products that, when adjusted for sales volume, has an average sodium level at or below the NSRI target

    That does seem somewhat nudge-ish.

    And maybe I do find this somewhat worrying after all:

    By the year 2000, men were consuming 48% more salt than they did in the early 1970s, and women were consuming 69% more.

    I guess that puts “change” on the other foot ;-). A conservative might want a return to our traditional salt consumption.

  28. TangoMan says:

    Either way, I’m hard pressed to get too exercised about presenting people with choices — which, indeed, seem to actually be choices — in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood of them making the one society hopes they make.

    Since when did the opinion/perspective of a regulator/administrator/politician of one party become synonymous with society. The majority of society favors gun rights. Liberals in a liberal administration favor gun control. Nudging people to disfavor gun ownership doesn’t equate to nudging people to move in a direction that society wants.

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with putting the healthier choices first in the queue.

    Because it illustrates the fundamental fallacy behind egg-headed schemes promulgated to redesign society – the knowledge problem. A bureaucrat doesn’t have the knowledge that is available to the citizen who is making a decision at a particular time and place. This lunch example is a perfect illustration. I realize that anecdotal evidence has its limits but I’ve never, ever, been in a cafeteria line where the customers ate their food at the moment that they picked it up. If you’re a “libertarian paternalist” government regulator perhaps your experience has been different. What I usually see is customers who pick up their food and then eat it at a table. This completely invalidates the premise that picking up the food first will insure that it is eaten before the food that is picked up later in the process.

    A kid can pick up his banana first, then proceed through the line and pick up his chicken entree, then proceed through the line and pick up 3 Jell-o desserts and go to the table. The information before that kid is a whole lot different than the information that existed for the egg-headed bureaucrat who devised this regulation and then shoved it down through the bureaucracy in order to have it implemented. With the kid at the lunch table, the situation has changed and the kid will now eat what he wants and leave on the tray that which doesn’t interest him.

  29. The problem is, what happens when the “nudge” fails to induce the desired effect? Does anyone seriously expect them to throw up their hands and go, “Oh well, we tried.”

  30. Michael says:

    What I usually see is customers who pick up their food and then eat it at a table. This completely invalidates the premise that picking up the food first will insure that it is eaten before the food that is picked up later in the process.

    You’re assuming that taking the food is mandatory. If taking the fruit is optional, and placing it at the beginning of the line makes you more likely to take it, then it will of course make it more likely to be consumed when you’re at the table. If the fruit is at the end of the line, and that makes it less likely to be taken, it also makes it less likely to be consumed.

  31. john personna says:

    A kid can pick up his banana first, then proceed through the line and pick up his chicken entree, then proceed through the line and pick up 3 Jell-o desserts and go to the table. The information before that kid is a whole lot different than the information that existed for the egg-headed bureaucrat who devised this regulation and then shoved it down through the bureaucracy in order to have it implemented. With the kid at the lunch table, the situation has changed and the kid will now eat what he wants and leave on the tray that which doesn’t interest him.

    First, you just did what you accuse the bureaucrat of doing, you made up an answer.

    Second, behavioral economics is based on experimental outcomes. You wouldn’t do a policy with A without testing alternatives B, C, and D.

    (You guys don’t know what this is, but you’re against it 😉

  32. steve says:

    “Because it illustrates the fundamental fallacy behind egg-headed schemes promulgated to redesign society – the knowledge problem. A bureaucrat doesn’t have the knowledge that is available to the citizen who is making a decision at a particular time and place. This lunch example is a perfect illustration. I realize that anecdotal evidence has its limits but I’ve never, ever, been in a cafeteria line where the customers ate their food at the moment that they picked it up. If you’re a “libertarian paternalist” government regulator perhaps your experience has been different. What I usually see is customers who pick up their food and then eat it at a table.”

    We cook for a number of charitable organizations. The stuff that is first in line goes fastest. People tend to eat it if they take it, especially if they pay for it.

    Since in this example something has to go first, why do you trust that same bureaucrat when they put the fried chicken first? Isnt there a knowledge problem already at work?

    Bill- I loaned the book out before finishing it. What examples were you thinking about? Where is the subsidy or tax in organ donation and checking it off on your driver’s license? What would be the libertarian approach? Assume that I am a physician at a trauma center and have had discussions with families about donations.

    Steve

  33. TangoMan says:

    We cook for a number of charitable organizations. The stuff that is first in line goes fastest. People tend to eat it if they take it, especially if they pay for it.

    Ceterus paribus, I agree with you. Now try this experiment – cook up some nice steaming pots of haggis and tripe and pig uterus and and put it at the front and tell me that the principle still holds.

    You’re assuming that taking the food is mandatory. If taking the fruit is optional, and placing it at the beginning of the line makes you more likely to take it, then it will of course make it more likely to be consumed when you’re at the table. If the fruit is at the end of the line, and that makes it less likely to be taken, it also makes it less likely to be consumed.

    Actually, my unstated assumption is that this cafeteria exercise is repeated every school day for a year and the knowledge advantage that the kid will have over the bureaucrat will increase as the kid, day after day, realizes that the desserts are at the back of the line. The libertarian paternalism tactic might fool him on his first day of attending that school because he doesn’t yet have the knowledge of what food choices await him as he moves through the cafeteria line. Eventually he will have that knowledge and then his behavior will change to align with his preferences.

  34. john personna says:

    Actually, my unstated assumption is that this cafeteria exercise is repeated every school day for a year and the knowledge advantage that the kid will have over the bureaucrat will increase as the kid, day after day, realizes that the desserts are at the back of the line.

    Maybe you should test that.

    Eventually he will have that knowledge and then his behavior will change to align with his preferences.

    What I think, from the behavioral books I’ve read, is that preferences are not what we thought they were.

    We may not have for instance a strong preference about banana-or-Jello or donate-or-not. We may be ambivalent. And, we may be just as happy with banana and donation at the end of the day, as we would have been with Jello and no donation.

    (I didn’t get all the way through Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, maybe because I’d been exposed to the ideas already. It’s not a bad place to start.)

  35. TangoMan says:

    I’d like to clarify one point regarding my position, which is that I actually prefer a nudge strategy in policies rather than outright mandates.

    My concern is that this paternalistic oversight not expand the overall level of oversight simply because it is less visible and thus more tolerable. I think that it is unlikely that regulations will not expand, especially if they seem less draconian, in which case I fully expect the dam to have bust and we’ll see massive regulatory overreach from our betters, the social engineers who feel that they know best for everyone. Lastly, as Stormy Dragon has so perceptively pointed out, the effort will not stop if the desired outcome is not achieved.

  36. TangoMan says:

    Maybe you should test that.

    After you. Should that be my quip to every point you make? Look, my knowledge of behavioral genetics led me to behavioral economics quite a long while back, so thanks for the reading suggestions, but I’m ok with where I am.

  37. PD Shaw says:

    From what I can tell previewing the Nudge book on amazon, there is not peer-reviewed research supporting the placement theory in the cafeteria. It appears from my reading to be anecdotal, and is based partly upon more extreme extrapolations of cake being the first item observed in the cafeteria line. No indication of the length of the line-placement effect; other studies of cafeteria interventions show that the effects are often as short-lived as the novelty.

    Anyway, I’m not hostile to better diet strategies in the schools. Kids are there to be taught and schools need to be paternalistic during the school day. Kids aren’t irrational — they eat what they like and don’t have a lot of short-term or even medium-term costs for doing so.

  38. Michael says:

    The libertarian paternalism tactic might fool him on his first day of attending that school because he doesn’t yet have the knowledge of what food choices await him as he moves through the cafeteria line.

    You misunderstand the experiment. The choice is never between fruit and fried chicken.

    The choice is between fruit or no fruit. When your tray is empty, you’re more likely to choose fruit, because it’s more appealing than what you have. When your tray already contains fried chicken, you’re less likely to choose fruit, because it’s less appealing. Knowing that you have more options further down the line modifies the options on an intellectual level, but not the instinctive level that nudge-theory is dealing with.

  39. TangoMan says:

    You misunderstand the experiment.

    No, I don’t misunderstand, I just don’t accept the conclusions as being transferable to real life because the conclusions were based on an experiment design which is quite limited.

    When your tray is empty, you’re more likely to choose fruit, because it’s more appealing than what you have. When your tray already contains fried chicken, you’re less likely to choose fruit, because it’s less appealing.

    I fear that it is you who misunderstands my point. You’re trying to jam my responses so that they fit into the experimental narrative and you go about explaining the experimental narrative. Thanks, but I already understand the experimental design at work here. It’s a static design. People don’t make repeated decisions on such a basis, they make them from a foundation built on dynamism. Once a student becomes familiar with the layout of that cafeteria they will steer their way through it in search of what they desire and they’ll come very close to not even noticing the fruit bowl at the start of the line, the fruit bowl, that on their first visit, had enticed them to pick up a banana to put on their empty tray because they were quite hungry at that moment.

  40. john personna says:

    Maybe you should test that.

    After you. Should that be my quip to every point you make? Look, my knowledge of behavioral genetics led me to behavioral economics quite a long while back, so thanks for the reading suggestions, but I’m ok with where I am.

    I happily monitor the streams of experiments being run, and adjust my views when the anomalies prove less general than initially thought. I’m aware, for instance, of The controversy surrounding the cost of Dan Ariely’s Hershey’s Kiss.

    All that said, I still don’t get where you are coming from. It really seems you are blowing smoke about something you half know, if that.

  41. Michael says:

    I fear that it is you who misunderstands my point. You’re trying to jam my responses so that they fit into the experimental narrative and you go about explaining the experimental narrative.

    I apologize, I had assumed that your responses were meant to fit into the topic narrative.

    Once a student becomes familiar with the layout of that cafeteria they will steer their way through it in search of what they desire and they’ll come very close to not even noticing the fruit bowl at the start of the line

    That’s an interesting theory, and I can certainly see is being possible. Do you know of any studies that show one way or the other? I remember from my sociology class years ago, being told that stores arrange their stock to make the items they want you to buy more noticeable (or harder to not notice), since that makes you more likely to buy them (think gum at the checkout isle). If what you claim is true, that undermines the reason stores do that, and also a fairly large amount of money retailers have put into finding out the effects of product placement.

  42. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner wrote,

    [T]he government is already asking you to choose to be an organ donor but doing it inefficiently. To the extent it’s government’s job to get people to indicate their preference ahead of time — on the assumption that it’s too late when you’re a candidate to donate — it makes sense to ask in the way most likely to generate a Yes answer.

    It’s not the government’s job to get people to indicate their preference ahead of time. That’s for individuals to decide on their own, including those who effectively decide by indecision or inaction.

    Steve asked,

    Where is the subsidy or tax in organ donation and checking it off on your driver’s license? What would be the libertarian approach?

    The “tax” here is being nagged about organs while renewing your driver’s license. The libertarian approach is to get government out of this loop altogether.

    If you’re “a physician at a trauma center [who has] had discussions with families about donations,” you’re very well situated to help educate and persuade people that donating organs is a wonderful and enlightened thing to do, a very fine cause. You probably understand that it’s important to get people to focus on the choices that should be made while they’re alive, and that families of the recently deceased are less likely to overrule a donation directive of a loved one if the loved one has personally confirmed his/her preferences while alive. So join a non-profit organization (there are several) to promote this! Compete in the marketplace of ideas, persuade people to your position.

    But suppose Cass Sunstein and I also think playing basketball with underprivileged kids is a good thing. Next time you go get your drivers license renewed, do you want them to say, “Sorry, we can’t renew your license until you’ve gone out back to play basketball with the kids there for at least 15 minutes”?

    Too compulsory? Yeah, Sunstein would point out that merely by mandating that the clerk interrupt your real reason for being there by pointing out that there are kids outside who’d like to play basketball with you, 10% of people will decide to go play with them. No skin off anyone else’s nose, is it? They’re free to say “no!” and still get their drivers license renewed.

    Except that besides playing basketball with underprivileged kids, I’m big on writing postcards to members of our armed forces serving abroad. Look, all you have to do is sign your name to this letter, and we’ll send it for you. No? Still just want your license?

    No problem. You can have it as soon as I’ve gone down my list of 29387432 other “worthy causes” that I’ve decided you need to be “reminded of” while you get your drivers license renewed.

    Sounding more like a tax yet? Small expansions of government intrusion into our lives cumulatively add up to big expansions over time. Sunstein isn’t trying to put you into a concentration camp with a sign on the front gate that says “Arbeit Macht Frei.” He just wants to nibble, to nickle and dime his way into things like whether the oranges come before the Twinkies in the lunch line.

    Next thing you know, he’s telling you you have to write IRS Form 1099s for every good and service transaction over $600 in the country. Hope you reported all that income and that the only people who sent the IRS 1099s with your name on it are those who actually paid you and they make no mistakes; or if not, hope you have a good lawyer.

  43. TangoMan says:

    That’s an interesting theory, and I can certainly see is being possible.

    Visit a friend in a city you’ve never been in before. Find his house by reading a map or following directions. You’ll likely be very attentive to all of your surroundings.

    Now live in that city for a few years. Every time you drive to your friend’s home will you be as attentive to your surroundings as you were the first time you charted that route? People often drive established routes and then have no memory of the last 5 miles of their journey.

    This process reflects on the information disparity. In the cafeteria, the first time you’re navigating your way through it, especially if you’re hungry, you’re quite open to the “nudge” effect and you’ll grab that fruit from the fruit bowl before you navigate your way through the rest of the cafeteria. However, as your storebank of information increases, especially relative to the “nudge” planner sitting in his D.C. office, you susceptibility to the “nudge” effect diminishes because you know what awaits you further in the line. Secondly, you may also have learned from experience that by grabbing the fruit while at the start of the line and then grabbing all of the other food that appeals to you as you progress through the line, that when the actual meal occurs you find that you no longer have the appetite to consume the fruit, and so you become reluctant to pay for it time and time again if you’re not eating it. Again, this results from the person on the scene having more information that is pertinent to their specific situation than the information that is available to the “nudge” planner in D.C.

  44. john personna says:

    beldar wrote:

    It’s not the government’s job to get people to indicate their preference ahead of time. That’s for individuals to decide on their own, including those who effectively decide by indecision or inaction.

    That is an interesting assertion.

    At a minimum it needs a “per my philosophy of government” in there, to signal that you aren’t dictating this.

    And that’s really the rub. If, in a democracy, most folks think the DMV is a convenient and appropriate place to state your preference, then it is.

    (Some of us might like the reminder aspect, that bad driving can make you or someone else an organ donor pretty fast.)

  45. Michael says:

    It’s not the government’s job to get people to indicate their preference ahead of time.

    So, just to clarify, your complaint stems from the fact that you don’t want the government having this information in the first place. That’s all well and good, but if they government is going to be having this information, wouldn’t you agree that there is nothing wrong with them asking about it?

    No problem. You can have it as soon as I’ve gone down my list of 29387432 other “worthy causes” that I’ve decided you need to be “reminded of” while you get your drivers license renewed.

    But the government hasn’t been tasked with tracking who wants to send letters abroad, or play baseball with orphans. They have been tasked with tracking who wants to donate organs. It’s a bit like the census, the government asks how many people live at your residence, they don’t leave it up to you to track down the correct government office to report it too, and assume the residence is empty if you do nothing.

    Visit a friend in a city you’ve never been in before. Find his house by reading a map or following directions. You’ll likely be very attentive to all of your surroundings.

    That’s just more anecdotes though, we can trade anecdotes all day.

    Now live in that city for a few years. Every time you drive to your friend’s home will you be as attentive to your surroundings as you were the first time you charted that route?

    No, but I shop at my local grocery store all the time, and every once in a while I’ll buy a pack of gum at the checkout isle, even though I didn’t want a pack of gum when I entered the store. Obviously retailers think there’s something do this, and I know they spend a lot of money on finding these kinds of ways to increase sales.

    Secondly, you may also have learned from experience that by grabbing the fruit while at the start of the line and then grabbing all of the other food that appeals to you as you progress through the line, that when the actual meal occurs you find that you no longer have the appetite to consume the fruit, and so you become reluctant to pay for it time and time again if you’re not eating it.

    Yes, that is true when you are paying for the meal and when each item adds to the cost. I don’t think either is true for public school lunches. However, if taking the fruit is the same cost to you as not taking the fruit, I would assume people would take it more often than not, even if they had doubts about whether they would ultimately consume it.

  46. Herb says:

    Do you really think that’s about someone’s drive to be “nanny?” And not just your neighbor’s concerns about property values?

    Yes, although to be fair, I was being more snarky than serious. The truth is my neighbor didn’t ask me to cut the grass; Code Enforcement did. (It’s effect on property values is negligible.)

    It’s part of the broken windows theory, and yes, I think policies based on the broken windows theory are “nanny state” policies.