Nudging State, Noble Lies

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.

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  1. The problem with “nudges” from the government is that ultimately they are administered at the point of a gun. The government has the authority to compel and any Nudge is a command draped in words meant to conceal that fact. I believe that authority is limited in our government for just that reason and we should be cherry of allowing government authority to expand, especially in personal health decision.

  2. For the first time in a very long while I’m going to disagree with you, Ben. Anthony Fauci is in fact a bad guy. There’s an easy game you can play when it comes to statements made by politicians (and make no mistake, Dr. Fauci is an exquisitely talented politician; how else has he kept his job over seven presidential administrations?). The game is called Stupid or Liar? and it’s simple to play.

    When Dr. Fauci testified that the US did not fund GOF research at the WIV, a claim that has been thoroughly proven, was he lying or is he too stupid to know the truth? I don’t think Dr. Fauci is a stupid man. When he redefined what GOF research actually is at the next Congressional hearing, in what appeared to be an effort to save face, was he lying or is he just a sloppy scientist? I don’t think Dr. Fauci is a sloppy scientist. We can cover more ground but it won’t be necessary. From masks to herd immunity to mask again, Dr. Fauci has simply lied to the American people and covered for his friends who work under the thumb of the CCP. If he was your personal physician you’d have fired him last Fall, if not sooner.

    I would bet a small but meaningful sum of money that Dr. Fauci has read Thaler’s work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had met and had conversations. They seem cut from the same cloth, personalities made entirely of narcissism and the leftover scraps of meat on the old bones of Wilsonian technocracy. Drop them both in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest and in a month they’d have starved to death, having failed to convince any rabbits to tie snares around themselves. Institutional rot is an orphan, but we can at least accurately guess who some of the fathers are.

  3. Hard to not agree with D_Y’s assessment of Fauci.
    I would add that success in government requires the understanding that managing sub-optimal answers (lies, stupid answers, etc.) to factual questions is the art of the career government employee as they navigate between politicians, opposing political beliefs/initiatives, and administrations. In contrast we in the private sector optimize against facts and goals. This difference may not be comforting, but as a former Senior Executive Service member I can attest to it’s reality. Former private financial industry executives that came to work for me in DC were all coached to understand that the optimal answer to a question is likely not going to be the politically acceptable answer, so do not be too disappointed/angry. Being part of a government decision, as a private sector executive, is a little like being Cassandra. You know the correct answer, but nobody wants to listen.

  4. “But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you-the social reformers-see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

    Isaiah Berlin

  5. In January 2020, seeing Wuhan shut down, I scoped out local Home Depot stores at 6:30 in the morning until I found N95s in stock. The only other buyers were Chinese Americans, buying as many as they could carry. (Things that make you go “hmmmm”.) I bought a few extras that day…and my 90-something parents were grateful to receive them.

    The next month “our” government told us not to bother with masks. Fauci’s allegiance to the Nudge was crystal clear right then, from the very start.

    The later advice to wear “masks” did not make any distinction between N95s and porous paper or cloth. As well documented here on ET, the N95s were basically unavailable by then. “Let them eat cake” --strike that-- “Let them wear cloth” was all they could offer.

    I am glad that many N95s were thereby preserved for health care workers. But I am sorry that our collective faith in government has been so eroded by this kindly, lovable, well-intentioned liar. I respect Fauci, and understand he’s in a tough spot. (Sandy Rich’s comment describes Fauci’s predicament perfectly.) But Fauci is saying what he needs to say, apparently thinking “You can’t handle the truth!”

    The most effective lies are built on a kernel of truth. Governmental dissembling is the foundation of incredibility others exploit to undermine the goals the dissembling sought to promote.

  6. I had yet to really wrap my mind around the “nudging State” theme, thanks for this context Ben. The best ET posts either make me soar with optimism or leave me in the doldrums; this is one of the latter. Government that is honest requires leaders who are honest, and our society simply does not reward honesty at the expense of effectiveness. We are a nation of marketers, and the Nudge seems to be what we are all incentivized (trained?) to do. I agree with your assessment of Fauci as a well trained Nudger, and would caution his fiercest critics to consider the sheer number of those responsible who are very happy to have a scapegoat. The “system” to protect us from a threat like Covid doesn’t exist, despite what we might have thought at the beginning of 2020. Public health officials who have everything to lose from a false alarm and almost nothing to lose from being one of thousands who couldn’t have possibly seen this coming combined with an administration whose Noble Lie is government can’t be good at anything so lets set the “Deep State” up to fail the way we always told you it would. Pretty miserable stuff when thinking how it could ever be different next time.

  7. Having only attended two on-line events, I don’t know much about this group. I thought this debate was timely to your Note as media is used extensively to perform the nudge:
    Is American media a threat to our free speech? How does it affect our democracy? Join Braver Angels to debate. Tomorrow 8-10PM

  8. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.”

    Goebbels. Yeah, that guy and that group.

    Fauci is a liar. Plain and simple. And now he wants us to hate the non-vaccinated. The country would be better off if Fauci had retired 10 years ago. And Fauci retiring today would be the second best choice.

  9. When government employees start tailoring their answers and actions away from what is right and truth, in the name of what is politically expedient, we see Nudging behaviour writ large. What are the limiting principles in the face of “political expediency”?

  10. H/t to Adam Carolla of course

  11. I am not advocating. I am just describing. I recommend a re-read of the last three sentences of my post.

  12. On the subject of Government Nudging, the Obama Administration stood up the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). Their intent was to nudge the U.S. population towards the political objectives of the Administration. You can find their annual reports in the Obama Administration Document Archives. No need to wager, there is no question about the influence of Thaler and the desire of government to nudge the population.
    To avoid any misunderstanding, knowledge of a thing does not imply agreement with it’s existence.

  13. I suspect you have some good points in this comments since you got a few likes, but you lost me at casting aspersions on Chinese people in the first paragraph. Perhaps, like you, they were buying them for friends, family, or their church.

    BTW, when I had trouble buying masks at that time, friends and family from Taiwan sent me some of theirs that had been given to them by the government.

    Hoarding is often a side effect of a broken system and not always broken people.

  14. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    To reinforce what Chris is saying here … as many of you know, in March of 2020, the Epsilon Theory team organized a group to secure N95 masks and distribute them directly to nurses, docs, EMTs and other frontline heroes in our fight against Covid. Working with the Chinese office of Intel, we set up an “underground railroad” of high-quality KN95 masks where dozens of individual Chinese citizens, with zero reward and no motivation other than helping fellow humans, personally bought KN95 masks and personally mailed them here to us - complete strangers - in the States. They did this every day. They paid for this out of their own pocket in hopes that we would eventually reimburse them (we did). What is clear eyes and full hearts? This.

  15. Not to mention the fact that in a ton of Asian cultures mask wearing is much more commonplace than it was in the US pre-Covid.

  16. Thank you, Ben. This is exactly what I needed today.

    If we cannot embrace the messiness that is “by the people,” if we can’t lean into a trust and even an admiration of our neighbors and rely on them to – maybe after trying other paths – ultimately migrate to the truth, then we really have a problem with the concept of a representative democracy.

    I replied to you on Twitter recently something along the lines of: I believe in the Noble Lie and the idea that honorable people must sometimes lie for the greater good, but what makes it “noble” is that there are consequences for the lie. If someone can lie with impunity and even be applauded for it, then it ceases to be noble and becomes merely corruption.

  17. I was close friends with many hopeful MDs in undergrad. Most now are. Their focused training, akin to the training to become elite athletes, was specifically to be on the front line of saving lives. I honestly can’t imagine what it would take for any of them, within a decade after residency, to leave the front line to be a bureaucrat.

    When someone has sacrificed years of their life to attain something so difficult, then having achieved it, completely abandons the function and keeps only the form, we would be wise to be skeptical of them.

    From the beginning of covid, we should all have seen Fauci first as a bureaucrat before considering him as a doctor. Taking his nemesis, we should view Rand Paul as first a politician. Ron Paul though had years as a practicing physician, as did Ben Carson. Kim Schrier, MD (D-CA) got involved in politics because of her frustration with the health system. As has Carolyn McClanahan who still actively works in the ED and as a CFP, while being active in politics on the Democratic side. My favorite follow for Indiana info through the early days of covid was @gbosslet a critical care pulmonologist who was told by partners to stay home because his wife had cancer. So he focused on reading everything and informing the public, which included views about administration policy. His personal political views are clearly left of mine. But he’s a doctor not a politician.

    I will always be skeptical about someone appearing in a form that demands unrecoverable and immense personal sacrifice, quickly abandoned all the function of it. Maybe we should just stop giving any attention to those wearing lapel pins that say “expert” and see if they behave as an expert would first.

  18. “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.”

    This is a hilarious take.

    Ben can see through the bullshit manipulation is the BLS’s monthly data-dump, but seems to think the same kind of captured losers can’t run the NIH (600,000 dead!!!). Ironic that Ben wrote an entire article on Gell-Mann amnesia.

  19. "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. "

    1. There must certainly be some, but I cannot think of a single public voice other than Ben that both correctly expressed concern about Covid AND heavily, frequently and brutally criticized Tony Fauci as early as March 2020.
    2. This construction (“I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation”) is a stylistically perfect and tight example of the lost art of the subtle, backhanded takedown. I’m biased, but that is Oscar Wilde-level bon mot shit. Do you…really read this as a compliment?
    3. I’m no arbiter of such things - others are free to read and feel about it how they will - but I think cutting out the sentences that followed your excerpt (which ErpichtAuf helpfully linked) to take a swing was not especially clear-eyed nor full-hearted.
  20. The nudge is the result of citizens rendering ourselves as consumers.

    I cannot think of a better example of this than the Sturgis gatherings, at which a marketed lifestyle is celebrated as an expression of personal freedom.

    So, yeah, government became an ad man. 75% of the nation supported the invasion of Iraq. That’s successful marketing, even if the policy itself was disastrous.

    It’ll take a rejection of our consumer identity, clear eyes/full heart, to recover our identity as citizens participating in our community.

  21. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    The adverse and widespread impact of the consumerization of the individual is something it took me an embarrassingly long time to come around on.

  22. The subtle, backhanded takedown struck me as being Shakespearean. It reminded me of Marc Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar.

  23. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yes, my initial draft of that reply referenced exactly that speech. :slight_smile:

  24. It’s a real problem.

    Consumerism fosters both powerlessness and irresponsibility. We choose only from options we are offered, why should we be responsible for the effects of our choices?

    And yet, as consumers we define ourselves by the choices we make even when (especially when?) we despise the options we are provided. It seems the more we despise our options, the more stridently we defend the choices we make and the identity those choices confer.

    I appreciate you guys because you ask the right question, “Why am I seeing/reading/hearing this now?” and you understand that a clear eyes/full heart pack has to be actual to be effective.

  25. Rusty, you are right about the stylistic goodness, which isn’t lost on anyone, I don’t think. But the part about it I think you’re making a mistake about is this: “Do I think he’s a bad guy? No”.

    So, maybe I’m more conspiratorial than the rest of the pack here, but Fauci has never once spoken about vitamin D, being less fat, etc. etc. It is clear to any reasonable observer that he is, actually, a bad guy, and maybe a patriot at the same time. He is beholden to corporate pharmaceutical interests more than he is to the actual health of Americans.

    Is part of the joke that ben actually thinks he’s a bad guy? Cause then, that’s lost on me.

    He is a bad guy. The evidence is all there.

  26. I am truly sorry if anyone thought I was casting aspersions on Chinese Americans in my local Home Depot, simply because they too were buying masks. My intention was to compliment their access to information, foresight, and preparedness. Please forgive me if my original writing was unclear. My own family thought me alarmist at the time.

    Applause to everyone who helped supply masks to others…especially to the vulnerable and the front line.

  27. A bit late to the party but I reread this note today and so here I am 3 months after the last comment making an observation…

    Our reaction to nudging is funny, and probably a bit damning if you’re being honest with oneself

    “voila! 90% of the population will “choose” to be organ donors.”

    As an organ donor and someone who doesn’t fully understand why someone wouldn’t choose to be one this whole nudge seems entirely reasonable me. Even knowing Ben’s writing full well and the direction his commentary would ultimately go (and certainly agreeing with it) I couldn’t help thinking, What’s wrong with the nudge? At least in this instance.

    Ur dead, what do u care if someone in desperate need of a new liver borrows yours for the next 30 years they have left to live. Ur already dead u have no use for a liver!

    Which brings me to the point of the this comment. It’s funny how if this had been framed differently, using a policy I don’t support I would have absolutely 100% been anti nudge from the get go. I mean I AM anti-nudge. *except apparently if its a nudge in the direction of a policy I support.

    I wonder, what nudges might you support? and why are those any different than the nudges you so vehemently disagree with? Beyond of course the fact you disagree with the fundamental direction of the the nudge? For example, say the government is nudging the populace towards Clear Eyes Full Hearts. Do you support the nudge? or is any and all nudging bad ?

    Who decides what’s good and bad?

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