Nudging, Paternalism, and Human Agency

From: Political Theology Today

A Response to the Responses, Pt. II: Nudging, Paternalism, and Human Agency


1. Nudges: Myth and Reality

Let’s start with a note of clarification regarding “nudges” themselves. What are these nudges that we have been discussing, and what do they do? Perhaps looking at examples that are already in play in our world—nudges developed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—may serve to bring a level of coherence, specificity, and clarity to an otherwise fraught, and likely to be mythologized, issue.

A “nudge”—a term brought to public attention by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler—generally refers, in the policy world, to a small modification to an already existing “choice architecture,” some context in which we make decisions; the modification is meant to promote certain decisions over others, in a context where some such promotion is inescapable. Many nudges work by simply structuring (we would say “improving,” but you decide) the disclosure of information. One example is the FDA’s new “plate” logo that has replaced the food pyramid, and more directly conveys the recommended proportion of food types. Another is the updated label for reporting the fuel economy of new cars. Like the old food pyramid, the old fuel economy labels worked, but not in the most efficient way possible; they didn’t give consumers a clear sense of what their fuel costs would be in coming years, or where a particular vehicle stood in comparison to others in its class. The new labels make this information more readily digestible, in the hopes that consumers will be more likely to purchase cars that are more fuel-efficient. As should be obvious, refusing to require such labels would not mean that anyone will be “freer,” as if individual’s minds are contingently epistemically constrained by the selection of information the government demands; rather, it would simply mean that their assessment of a given set of cars, say, will be shaped by all the other usual inputs, and without the information disclosure in question (the individual’s budget and sense of what she needs, the color of various models on the lot, the sales pitch of the salesman, the consumer’s preference for cultural images associated with various makes through marketing, etc.).

Other nudges work by building on the power of a default setting. It turns out that even when given a choice to ‘opt out,’ many people stick with whatever option is the ‘default’—whether this is the privacy setting Facebook selects (for its own profit-seeking reasons, please note), or enrollment in a cable service package. Corporations know this; ‘negative option marketing’ exploits this tendency toward inertia in an especially visible way by automatically enrolling those who accept a ‘free’ product in a program that carries a monthly fee, until the consumer explicitly opts out. Recognizing for-profit companies’ attention to lucrative defaults, in recent years the IRS and the Treasury Department have undertaken new initiatives to encourage employers to adopt automatic enrollment plans for their retirement savings programs, in the hopes that more Americans will have money in their retirement as a result—without the cost of either financial education or regulatory intervention. In this case, a government nudge is designed to ensure larger freedom from reliance on government late in life—again, hardly an example of government “control,” but rather quite clearly something like the opposite.


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