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Like it or not, we need a ‘nudge’ to make better choices

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto

The Nobel Prize for economics, like its subject, runs on controversy. You won't find here the heated debates about whether Bob Dylan is really a writer, but many laureates – New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is one – arouse as much ire as admiration. Economists are like medieval theologians, coming to mental blows over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The latest winner, the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler, is a case in point. With colleague Cass Sunstein, a prolific jurist and former White House "regulation czar," he popularized the notion of "choice architecture," otherwise known as a nudge. In the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, they argued that government has a responsibility to create mechanisms by which citizens will make better choices.

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The motivation here is obvious: We humans are not very good choosers, even when it comes to our own welfare. For example, many people, through laziness or confusion, make bad decisions about their retirement savings. So there should be mandatory plan contributions, with opt-out clauses. Likewise organ-donation schemes for drivers, which ought to operate in reverse of the current norm: You must actively choose not to donate. More mundane examples include the everyday hilarities of cellphone autocorrect (which regulates the language we type) or a measure directed at people who overload and overeat in fast-food restaurants. Eliminate trays in these eateries and you will cut down on both waste and waistlines. Everybody wins!

Nudging is not always about making things better for bodies and the body politic, of course. Those supersize-me offers at burger chains or the pricing of soft drinks at the movies are examples of choice architecture, too. So are credit cards, negative-option billing plans for utilities and TV channel bundling.

Critics find the very idea of pro-welfarist nudging paternalistic, and indeed the view has come to be called "libertarian paternalism." This is government regulation of what many people consider a basic political freedom: the ability to choose whatever I want, including things that may be bad for me – and maybe the world.

There is no such thing as an unstructured choice, of course, any more than there are unregulated markets. The question is always: Who benefits from the given architecture or scheme of regulation? Prof. Thaler and Prof. Sunstein think good architecture means greater welfare for everyone. When they sail close to old-fashioned Big State elitism, as when they suggest more sophisticated choosers should help out those less savvy, they can always fall back on opt-out clauses.

But it's not that simple. A more searching critique of "nudge-world," as political philosopher Jeremy Waldron called it, is that it compromises autonomy and dignity, not just simply freedom of choice. Even when we know that choices are structured, whether by well-meaning state agencies or rapacious marketing companies – like the ones who opposed the so-called Big Gulp ban on oversized soft drinks – we still feel that the experience of freedom is basic to selfhood.

On this view, we are diminished when we are guided, like rats, toward the good welfare cheese in the social maze. Nudging is a subtle version of the charge that afflicts all utilitarian social arrangements – namely, that they don't show respect for persons.

A good point, and yet the central problem remains. We need external structures to make things function, not only because we are often irrational choosers but because we are often actively bad people. Insisting on unfettered choice is like saying we should all be playing bumper cars at the carnival when what we really need are speed limits and traffic laws. (This strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for current "debates" about free speech.)

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So, resent them as much as we like, nudges aren't going anywhere. They are as old as barter and as tricky as statistics or three-card monte. The pathos here belongs to the human condition itself. Maybe we should aspire to be better choosers, but it's so much work. Why not let some wonk's choice architecture do the thinking for me, as long as I feel free?

In the end, nudging highlights our internal tangles concerning desire about desire. We might wish we were better, more autonomous and dignified selves – but maybe not today. Today, architects, I just want to fill my tray.

Public servants fed up with Phoenix payroll issues (The Canadian Press)
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