doing nothing to people is coercive

BoingBoing links to this critique of Nudge-style libertarian paternalism. Let me admit this post is written out of ignorance. I haven’t read Nudge myself, but my questions are about its critiques.

Here is how Farrell and Shaliza describe this policy orientation:

They argue that wise decision-makers should tweak the options and information available so that the easiest choice is the right one. For example, this can guide people to donate their organs if they die unexpectedly by making organ donation an opt-out rather than an opt-in choice. And it can encourage people to plan for their pensions by making pension contributions automatic for everyone who does not explicitly opt out of the system.

This sounds similar to other descriptions I’ve heard, so lets just accept it as fair for now. They then go on to make a bunch of criticisms. Technocrats don’t know any better than citizens. The framing effects liberal paternalists try to exploit don’t exist. Technocrats have no right to nudge/shove citizens in a democracy. It is coercive. The liberal paternalism of technocrats crowds out innovation driven by diversity.

Again, this critique is familiar to me. I don’t have any particular investment in libertarian paternalism, but, this criticism leaves me scratching my head.

1. Ok, lets just get this out of the way. How significant is the tweaking of options/information on paperwork when it comes to state coercion? That far more coercive activities exist does not preclude concern. If framing questions is controversial, I hope we can get consensus on far greater acts of coercion. There are a couple of people in prison right now who wish the government would have merely attempted to nudge them away from the drug industry. I understand many critiques of Nudge would agree, but it is just feels bizarre talking about the state without making explicit how coercive it is in general.

2. There is a glaring contradiction between nudging is a coercive shove and nudging doesn’t even influence people. It is understandable that some people may argue one way and others the other. It is jarring to read Farrell and Shaliza advance both claims, saying:

According to Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, North Carolina, differences in donation rates are better explained by differences in organisational effectiveness than differences in opt-in/opt-out. It is not clear that opt-out would increase donations; unsexy but crucial reforms to regional schemes would almost certainly work better.

Ok, so framing doesn’t work. Then how is it so coercive? It might mean that the time we spend devising optimal nudges is wasted, but it also means it is not undemocratically shoving anyone. It also means that we shouldn’t expect to see crowding out of diverse opinions/decisions.

3. People really need to stop treating all information/decision making the same way. It doesn’t make sense to say decisions are better made in a particular arrangement. Are we talking about predicting the weather? The existence of a deity? The benefit of a new bridge? This is something Sunstein himself does at times in Infotopia. It is brutally rampant in the literature on information markets. It is at work in this critique.

groups of agents with diverse understandings of the world will solve difficult problems better than narrowly focused groups with higher expertise.

Yes, absolutely. Depending on what problems you give them. It is not like I want to defend “narrowly focused groups with higher expertise,” but there are dangers in throwing the results of decision/information research at everything indiscriminately.

4. TINA. As I understand it, framing can be exploited because framing exists. The idea is not to invent some new form of power and influence. We recognize that the framing of decisions influenced individual behavior, so it is natural to consider what the most desirable framing would be. This is not the state inventing a new weapon to use on the public. They are not stepping into a vacuum. I can understand criticism of how “technocrats” determine what is desirable, but that is not what opponents of libertarian paternalism do. The very act is coercive in itself. How dare they? Stupid technocrats. I can also understand a philosophical-ideological unease with it. I simply do not understand the idea that we are all just a bunch of rational individuals making independent decisions, unless evil czar Cass Sunstein gets his way!

5. In the spirit of 4, ummmm, what about advertising? Isn’t the standard defense of advertising to belittle the left when they claim it conditions decisions? Are we not supposed to make fun of people who criticize McDonald’s for marketing to children? Shouldn’t corporations allow us to make our own independent decisions instead of oppressing us? Before czar Sunstein became an enemy of the people, it was easy for people on the right to criticize these concerns. Personal responsibility! Don’t blame corporations for your own decisions! Ok, fine. But once we accept that changing opt-in to opt-out is an act of technocratic coercion, can we really ignore private coercion? I suppose the new defense of advertising would be that private coercion is fine, but the state shouldn’t engage in it. Ok, fine. Personally, I’m not extremely concerned about advertising, but if you convince me that being nudged is like being coercively shoved why should I care if it is by Sunstein or Ronald McDonald assaulting me?

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