The Manipulation of Choice: Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism

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As for economists, their work is simply ridiculed. The choice of Kant is indeed interesting. Kant, like Rousseau before him, believed that personal autonomy lies in the ability people have to resist external yet internalized pressure to achieve their real will rather than their socially induced desires. This explains the importance given by White to principles and willpower in the first chapter something we only discover in the last chapter.

This also explains why the author is less critical of traditional forms of paternalism such as taxes or bans, which are supposedly more transparent than nudges. This is an important question. There may be reasons for which coercive rules are deemed better than non-coercive ones, such as the fact nudges are deceitful Bovens, , but, curiously enough, White argues that deceit is immoral because it is paternalistic deceiving for profit is, for him, totally acceptable.

Deceit, then, cannot be a reason to dismiss nudges the argument would, otherwise, be circular. The main problem, however, lies elsewhere. This may be Hayekian, but this is certainly not Kantian. Wills, for Kant, are rational. And since rationality is universal, everyone — including policy makers — can gain access to it.

The examples he gives, to start with, are emotionally biased. Every Sunday morning, Patrick, a heavyset man in his early 50s, takes a stroll to the local bakery and enjoys a muffin and coffee while he reads his newspaper. He must be weak-willed, or perhaps he succumbed to crafty marketing or presentation on the part of the bakery or the food industry.

The Manipulation of Choice by Mark D. White (ebook)

Maybe he was confused about the nutritional content of the muffin compared to the fruit cup. When Patrick was a young boy, his grandfather would take him to that same bakery every Sunday morning and buy two muffins, one for each of them. Patrick lost touch with his grandfather after he left for college, and was able to share a muffin with him just one last time, at that very bakery, before his grandfather died three years ago.

So every Sunday since, he goes to that bakery, buys a muffin, and thinks about those mornings with his grandfather.

To be as melodramatic as White is, they kill him a second time. However moving this story is, it is grossly misleading. If Patrick really wants to buy muffins, no nudges can prevent him from doing so. Mmmm — it was good thanks for asking.


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Wish them luck! One thing you should know about Fred is that he loves his cherry Danish. His judgment tells him he should just walk on by the bakery, but the temptation threatens to draw him in.

The Manipulation of Choice

Or you gave up smoking a week ago but pass through a group of smokers lighting up outside their office building. The efficacy of interventions may vary across contexts: what works well in one situation or with one group of people may be of limited use in different settings or with different cultural groups. For example, consider behavior change in the context of energy use. Data collected on over 6 million US households by the energy company, Opower, has shown that consumers can be encouraged to use less energy if they are given feedback about how their energy use compares with that of similar sized households in their neighborhood, together with tacit approval or disapproval in the form of an emoticon.

However, the efficacy of this normative feedback varies with other factors, such as country and political ideology. Similar interventions used in the UK produced greater reductions in energy consumption than in the US Dolan and Metcalfe, , working paper , while another study showed that US households with politically liberal ideology were more likely than conservative households to reduce energy use in response to normative feedback Costa and Kahn, These findings suggest that targeted nudges may be most effective at producing widespread behavioral change Costa and Kahn, although such approaches are not yet widely used.

Another potential problem with nudge politics is that we don't yet know whether these interventions will work in the long term. This concern is particularly acute when nudges seek to produce outcomes which involve a series of behavioral decisions, as in the energy use example above.

Reassuringly, evidence collected over a 5-year period indicates that the efficacy of this particular nudge does not attenuate; instead, consumers apparently form new consumption habits and actually reduce energy use further over time. The study does show, however, that intermittent reinforcement of the behavior with the nudge is important. In households where the treatment was stopped, energy use began to climb back up to pre-treatment levels Allcott and Rogers, , working paper. Finally, the ethics of nudge politics are not clear cut Hansen and Jespersen, The moral justification for nudges, according to Thaler and Sunstein , rests on the assumption that they are paternalistic, or designed to make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.

In many situations, individual and collective interests are misaligned such that producing the collective benefit requires the nudged individuals to pay upfront costs. Determining whether such nudges are morally defensible is a key challenge for policy-makers. I suggest that policy-makers may defend the use of non-paternalistic nudges if the nudged individual stands to share in the collective benefits that are produced.

Requiring participants to opt-out, rather than opt-in, to organ donor schemes effectively doubled the number of consenting donors in one study Johnson and Goldstein, Crucially, nudged individuals do not benefit from being nudged onto the organ donor list. Nevertheless, these individuals do share the collective benefit, in terms of increased organs available for donation which they might 1 day need. Ethical hierarchy for policymakers when designing and implementing nudges. Policymakers should consider the payoffs of behavior change that accrue to nudged individuals and to others that are also affected.

The currencies of the payoffs may vary according to the nudge in question, for example financial nudges produce monetary payoffs whereas health nudges produce payoffs that may be estimated in terms of risk of illness or disease. Paternalistic nudges create the least challenging ethical dilemmas for policymakers, although some non-paternalistic nudges which create collective benefits that also accrue to the nudged individual type A may also be morally defensible.

Non-paternalistic nudges which require an individual to pay a cost but share in none of the benefits type B are morally dubious and should be used with caution. Nudges which require individuals to pay upfront costs without the opportunity to share in the collective benefit are morally dubious. For example, the UK Behavioural Insights Team has suggested that individuals could be nudged into more regular and generous charitable donations by using opt-out models to automatically enrol staff into workplace giving schemes UK Behavioural Insights Team, While the aim of nudges to increase charitable donations is clearly laudable, we should think carefully before endorsing interventions which impose costs on one set of individuals the donors to provide benefits to another set of individuals the recipients.

Implicit in the acceptance of such an arrangement is the notion that it is morally defensible to prioritize the welfare of one group of individuals over the welfare of another group. While such a stance may be acceptable from a moral perspective under certain conditions for example, where the benefit of receiving aid to the recipient group far outweighs the cost to the donors it is crucial for policy-makers to stipulate precisely when this is the case.

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To conclude, nudge policies have the potential to generate improvements in individuals' health, wealth and happiness for relatively small financial investments. I have highlighted a few areas where policy-makers should exercise caution, however. Specifically, the effect of nudges on behavior may be context specific.

As such, policy-makers should be careful not to equate an observed change in behavior in one context with the desired policy outcome, which may depend on behavior change in several disparate contexts. In a similar vein, it would also be useful to know more about the long-term effects of behavioral interventions. On an ethical note, I argue that nudges which produce collective, rather than individual, benefits do not properly fit the concept of paternalism.

Nevertheless, such nudges may often be morally defensible if the nudged individual can share in the collective benefits produced. Behavioral Economics For Dummies.

Bibliographic Information

Morris Altman. Insurance and Behavioral Economics. Howard C.

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