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

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