Behavioral economists and the associated social and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that choice behavior responds not only to “objective” benefits and costs but to various features of the “choice architecture” the world presents to the people making the choices. If non-enrollment is the default option with an opt-in requirement, fewer people will wind up enrolled than if enrollment is the default, with a fully disclosed and easy opt-out. Since there must be some default setting, there’s no such thing as a neutral choice architecture that elicits subjects’ “true preferences.” The same is true about organizing the food in a school cafeteria: what the kids eat depends in part on where different selections are placed.
People in the sales business spend a lot of time trying to design choice architectures that maximize profits. It seems obvious that people in the public-policy business ought to try to design choice architectures that serve public purposes.
In particular, in cases such as retirement planning and diet, where there’s a systematic difference between what experts recommend and subjects think is in their best interest on the one hand, and subjects’ actual behavior on the other, it seems natural to try to nudge people toward the behavior that’s in their own long-term interest as they see it, which generally means that it has external benefits as well. The same applies, with even more force, to energy conservation, where ordinary consumers systematically leave tons of money on the table for no benefit whatever; a better-insulated house more than pays for itself, quickly, and is also more comfortable to live in.
That’s the idea behind the Thaler and Sunstein “nudge” approach. The current right-wing coalition in the UK has been using it, and the Obama Administration is moving in the same direction.
Of course, it’s always an open question how much good this sort of thing can do. (See below the fold for some examples from the White House release; of course there’s no comparable list of failures.) But it’s really hard to see why anyone would be against strategies that (1) respect autonomy (2) economize on public expenditure and (3) have unambiguously positive results when they have any results at all, especially when the proposal is to do intensive experimental testing rather than rolling out grand schemes. At last, we have a polarization-proof policy proposal!
Oh, wait … I’d forgotten about the utterly pathological government-hatred and obscurantism on the contemporary American right. Fox News breaks the story with a “Govt Knows Best?” scare headline. Nick Gillespie at Reason Hit & Run writes:
Critics point out that a) expert advice is often proven wrong quickly after being implemented and b) government might have more essential functions that gulling citizens into acting one way or another.
In other words, according to Gillespie, since knowledge isn’t infallibility, ignorance is better than knowledge. And governments ought to ignore the the science of human behavior and not think about how to “gull” people into going to school, getting jobs or paying their taxes. By “critics” Gillespie must mean “idiots.” All of this is echoed, with some routine paranoid Obama-bashing added, at the usual collection of wingnut websites.
I don’t expect any better from Fox or PJ Media. But an outfit that calls itself Reason ought to be embarrassed when one of its writers displays such a flair for illogic. Does Gillespie really believe what he writes? I’d hate to think so, and don’t in fact believe it. This is the case Upton Sinclair described: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Come to think of it, that’s a testable proposition in behavioral economics.