Whose Nudge, Who’s Nudged

Recent years have seen a resurgence in the intellectual respectability of paternalism. Case Sunstein and Richard Thaler argue we need “nudges” that help us act on what we really want, not what we just think we want in the moment. Mike Bloomberg, to judge by his tenure as mayor, thinks we need not nudges but shoves.

The common thread in most of the behavioral economics literature that supports this resurgent paternalism is that none of us is completely rational or self-consistent- none of us really knows what we want or is perspicacious enough consistently to get it. By basing busybodyness on what appears to be universal failings (rather than particular failings that groups or individuals are more disposed towards) the paternalism can be justified as good for one, good for all.

But this is mostly wrong. While Kahneman and Tversky identified particular errors that even very smart, very well-educated people are disposed towards, it is simply not true that everyone is equally susceptible to the “System 1” heuristics and biases that behavioral economics has identified, or equally liable to failures of self-control. These biases are negatively correlated with general cognitive ability, and conscientiousness is itself a heritable trait that varies significantly across individuals.

Everybody makes mistakes, but some of us more than others. I was dumb enough not to sign up for health insurance my first five years as a teacher in the NYC public schools, when getting insurance was more-or-less just a matter of filling out a two-page form. It could be argued that I would have been better off with a default enrollment, or with a little more benevolent paternalism, particularly if I had been less lucky with my health during those five years.

Almost all of us-sometimes- need somebody around to tell us to drink less, or smoke less, or eat less, or go outside and run around. Whether or when it is the force of the state that should be telling us these things-rather than family or friends or church- is a legitimate matter for debate. But the findings of psychological experiments do not  make paternalism “libertarian,” or make all of us children in need of the Guardians’ gentle redress. To one degree or another, a free society is one that gives the freedom to make mistakes.

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