Cass Sunstien, friend/advisor to the prez, is a man who has advocated all sorts of subtle tyrannies, including fines or jail time for voicing “conspiracy theories.” His most influential book, Nudge, advocates a social science technocracy based on the work of Daniel Kahneman and other influential psychologists. Sunstien now has another book, the review of which explaining just one angle on why “Nudging” people to make decisions the government wants or approves of is dangerous:
Social scientists sometimes have an irritating habit of devoting a lot of resources and time to the rediscovery of the blindingly obvious. It is in this vein that Cass R Sunstein’s Why Nudge? boasts of the brilliant insights of behavioural economists who have ‘discovered’ that people often take decisions about their life that contradict their individual interests or aims. Throughout Why Nudge?, this unremarkable insight – well known to most mature adults – is presented as an amazing game-changing discovery.
The reader is constantly reminded that ‘behavioural findings’ show that ‘people make a lot of mistakes, some of which can prove extremely damaging’. People are sometimes short-sighted and, apparently, ‘procrastination, inertia, hyperbolic discounting and associated problems of self-control’ create all kinds of adverse outcomes for people. We are also informed that human beings make erroneous choices which ‘fail to promote their own ends’. Sunstein appears to revel in highlighting the different manifestations of the ‘human propensity to err’. He characterises what were formerly perceived as human weaknesses and poor choices as behavioural market failures. The purpose of this term is to draw an analogy with the economic concept of market failure. Why? Because just as market failures serve as the justification for the state regulation of economic life, so behavioural market failures serve as the justification for the state regulation of people’s personal lives.
There is something quasi-religious about the use of behavioural economics to indict people for failing to make the kind of choices approved by the author and his expert colleagues. ‘Behavioral economists have shown’ is one of Sunstein’s favourite phrases – it’s the functional equivalent of the biblical expression ‘The Lord said’. Throughout Why Nudge? one can almost hear the technocratic incantation, ‘we now know more’. Readers are assured that ‘more is being learned every day’, while, elsewhere, Sunstein insists that ‘we do know that people are much affected by’ the ‘background against which choices are made’.
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Sunstein tends to present his version of ‘libertarian paternalism’ as a relatively mild and benign corrective to the otherwise unpredictable chaos of human choice-making. He claims that his idea of ‘nudging’ people constitutes a comparatively moderate form of pressure on human behaviour. Sunstein claims that he is not interested in forcing people to alter their objectives, only the means through which they seek to realise them. He makes a distinction between ‘ends paternalism’ and ‘means paternalism’, and he is clearly in favour of the latter.
To his credit, Sunstein at least recognises the distinction between means and ends. Still, what about moral autonomy? People may well cherish their freedom to choose not as a means to achieving a beneficial end but as an end in itself. This, Sunstein labels a ‘thick version of autonomy’. Naturally, he prefers a ‘thin version’ of autonomy, which means that freedom of choice does not enjoy the status of a fundamental principle or what he calls an ‘exalted’ value. His casual attitude towards the ideal of moral autonomy ensures that the freedom to choose does not trump the imperative of what he calls the ‘master concept of social welfare’. Accordingly, explains Sunstein, when social welfare is at issue then ‘harder forms of paternalism are not off-limits’. From this perspective, behavioural market failures sometimes demand a more coercive variant of paternalism.
Historically, most arguments against the Enlightenment ideal of autonomy have been mounted in the language of morality and religion. Given the current deification of the Science – or better still, scientism – it is unsurprising that Sunstein looks to the domain of science to question the moral autonomy of people. But because scientism has not yet provided a refutation of moral autonomy, he is forced to argue that ‘we need a kind of behavioural science for judgments of morality and not merely judgments of fact’. In many respects, it is the ambition to transform the sphere of moral judgment into a laboratory that represents the most disturbing feature of the Nudge project. In effect, the transformation of judgment from a moral into a scientific accomplishment would empty the autonomy of the individual of any meaning.
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