Nudge is a book by Nobel prize-winning economist Dick Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein, wherein they describe a system of “libertarian paternalism” for State-directed “choice architectures” to improve public policy outcomes by influencing our behavior through clever framing techniques.
To be clear, I’m not applying the word “paternalism” to their work. That’s their word. Because that’s what they think good government is, a father-knows-best apparatus where we unruly teenagers should be pushed and prodded into making better life choices.
In its most basic application, the nudge of “choice architecture” is literally a reframing of formal choices available to us
children citizens. Want more organ donors? Why, just make organ donation an opt-out choice rather than an opt-in choice on driver’s license applications. Just make organ donation the default choice, like it is in Austria, and voila! 90% of the population will “choose” to be organ donors. Want to eliminate the various tax and social advantages provided to married couples? Why, just strike the word “marriage” from federal and state laws entirely. Just replace marriage certificates with civil union certificates, and pretty soon people will “choose” civil unions over marriage. Again, I’m not imposing these examples on Thaler and Sunstein’s framework. These are their examples.
As it turns out, though, this sort of literal choice architecture manipulation isn’t that easy to push through the vast inertial blob that is the modern bureaucratic State, as Sunstein personally discovered when he headed up the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration. There are limits, it seems, even to the power of the Executive Order pen to make physical changes in documents at the local motor vehicle registry or the local county courthouse. You can imagine how frustrating this would be for an enlightened father who only wants the best for his kids.
Luckily, however, there are no such inertial barriers to changing the words of government, to using narrative and public communications as instruments to reframe, not mere documents, but the available choice set for political debate.
This sort of narrative nudge, a combination of what Sunstein calls “counterspeech” and “cognitive infiltration” (again, his words), is an appropriate State response whenever a narrative expresses a “false and harmful” view of State agency, such as (his examples) a narrative that Al Qaeda was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks or that the theory of global warming is fraudulent. These “false and harmful” narratives are defined as conspiracy theories, and the people who express those ideas and memes are defined as conspiracy theorists. In Sunstein’s words:
What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help.
Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).– Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule “Conspiracy Theories” (2008)
What is cognitive infiltration? Again in Sunstein’s own words:
Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.
What makes Sunstein’s notion of cognitive infiltration all the more chilling is that the sole guideline for determining whether a narrative is false and harmful in the first place is a utilitarian notion of “social welfare”, and the sole arbiter of that social welfare is the Executive of the “well-motivated” State (meaning, in a triumph of circular reasoning, a State that is assumed to be motivated by social welfare concerns). Even the Judiciary should fall in line here, with FOIA and similar judicially-applied requests for informational transparency limited by whether or not they “create a net improvement in the government’s overall response strategy” to these
terrorists conspiracy theorists.
This is the bloodless language of our modern smiley-face authoritarians. It’s not a left/right thing. It’s a power thing.
This is the Nudging State.
At the heart of the Nudging State is the intentional misuse of language. You’re not using “counterspeech” to say what you actually believe. You’re using counterspeech instrumentally, as a means to an end of “raising doubts” about a narrative you believe to be harmful to your conception of social welfare. You’re choosing and disseminating your words to create a behavioral response in the listener. Maybe your words are what you believe in your heart of hearts. Maybe they’re not. Doesn’t matter. What matters isn’t whether your words are true, but whether they’re effective.
Imagine if you will an Administration that comes into office on the back of a landslide victory and filibuster-proof legislative majorities, that is faced with the greatest economic depression and financial system corruption in a century, and that decides to build its entire legislative agenda around … [checks notes] … “bending the curve” of aggregate healthcare expenditures by forcing citizens to buy health insurance from a government-approved list of private insurers. Crazy, I know, but bear with me on this hypothetical example. As the head of the White House Office of Information, let’s say that you are tasked with pushing back on any political resistance to this agenda. To be clear, much if not most of the political resistance has no grounding in a principled objection to forcing citizens to buy health insurance; it’s just obstruction for the sake of obstruction, and their methods are base and scurrilous. You believe that their narrative is false and harmful to the social welfare of the United States, and that your fellow citizens are just … not quite smart enough to see through the lies and understand their own self-interest. You believe not only in the power of Nudge, but in the righteousness of Nudge.
So you create a narrative of your own, a narrative that you implore your colleagues and allies in academia, government and media to adopt as their own, a narrative that characterizes legislative roll-back efforts as “heartless cuts” in the number of Americans with health insurance. To support this narrative, you count as “cuts” the estimated number of people who would choose to stop buying insurance if the law didn’t force them to keep buying insurance.
Your nudge and the countless “explainers” of your allies are not a lie per se. Given your linguistic reframing of the word “cut” to mean “people we predict will no longer be compelled to buy health insurance”, the numbers you are using in your counterspeech are factually correct. Sure, you’ve intentionally mangled the common meaning of the word “cut” beyond recognition, but with your non-GAAP, depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-is-is redefinition of the word, a formal parsing of your statement is technically correct.
Are you the first bureaucrat to redefine a word or a metric in service to public relations and legislative combat? Are you the first Administration to see the electorate as a bunch of rubes that have to be lied to for their own good? LOL. Of course not.
But now it’s policy. Now it’s what a good regime ought to do, not what any regime tries to get away with.
Do you know perfectly well that you have shaded and fibbed and framed the data to constrain the available policy choice set into a Hobson’s choice, where if your narrative is successfully disseminated there is effectively no choice at all? Of course you do. Are you a bit embarrassed by all this? A tad concerned that you are intentionally promoting a half-truth at best? Not at all. You sleep like a baby. You believe with all your heart that your words should be judged on their truthiness, not their truth, because that is what the greater social welfare demands.
True believers in the power of Nudge and the righteousness of Nudge do not see smiley-face authoritarian influence over social choice through the misuse of language as the enemy of good government. They see it as the GOAL of good government.
That’s how it started …
And here’s how it’s going.
The story of our institutional response to Covid has been and continues to be a series of truths told with bad intent, a constant effort to nudge and use words instrumentally for partisan or corporate advantage.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
– William Blake
Our narratives of COVID-19 are lies of a particular sort, political narratives that have a nugget of truth within them, but are told with bad intent. They are told this way because it works. Because the nugget of truth hides a deeper, unpleasant truth.
And a Big Lie.
Nowhere do we see the Nudging State in action more than in our government’s policy response to Covid.
Nowhere do we see the failure of the Nudging State – not just in the long-term sense of destroying trust in government but also in the immediate sense of failing their public health goals – than in our government’s policy response to Covid.
Do I think Tony Fauci is a bad guy? No. I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation. I ALSO think he has knowingly shaded and fibbed and framed his public statements for public effect. I ALSO think he believes not only in the power of Nudge, but in the righteousness of Nudge.
I think this has been a terrible mistake.
“Do we want public health officials to report facts and uncertainties transparently? Or do we want them to shape information to influence the public to take specific actions?”
“Noble lies are a trap. We cannot predict the public’s behavior, and loss of trust is devastating. The general population is far too skeptical to blindly follow the advice of experts, and far too intelligent to be easily duped.“Kerrington Powell and Vinay Prasad, “The Noble Lies of COVID-19”, July 28, 2021
Please don’t take this as a partisan attack on Tony Fauci just because he’s the favorite target of the MAGA right. My god, no one was more critical of the pathetic Covid policy response and ignoble lies of the Trump Administration than we were.
But this is not the story of one political party’s failure. This is not the story of one President’s failure.
This is the story of the simultaneous failure of every institution we expected to operate in our interest, ALL under the weight of maintaining their belief in the power of Nudge.
The failures of these institutions were failures of narrative, devastating revelations of each institution’s fundamental inability to do what they said they would do.
There are three reasons a person becomes a liar: he believes that he must, he believes that he may, or he believes it serves a Greater Truth.
It is poisonous to ALL of us when the government lies as a matter of POLICY.
Even if it’s a Noble Lie told in service to a Greater Truth.
Especially if it’s a Noble Lie told in service to a Greater Truth.
In the world of Nudge, everyone is an ad man, and the government is just the biggest, baddest ad man of them all.
I am not so naive as to think that the Nudging State is not an apt description of what modern government is.
But it is a terrible prescription for what modern government should be.
Because it destroys what makes this a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
That speech that talked about of the people, by the people, for the people is not even 160 years old. There’s an oak tree on my farm that I’m pretty sure is older than that.
Just read it. Again. As if it were the first time. Please. And as the kids would say, let it sink in.
We must resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. Not just these dead from that battle in Pennsylvania. Not just these dead from every other battle where American soldiers have fallen. But also these 600,000 dead from our battle with Covid. It is for them – ALL OF THEM – that we the living must dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work of our nation. It was unfinished in 1776. It was unfinished in 1863. It is unfinished in 2021. It will never be finished. But we will make it better.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Once again we are testing whether this nation, or any nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ALL of its citizens are created equal, can endure.
It will be the fight of our lives.