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Cass Sunstein Guest-Blogging:

I'm delighted to report that Cass Sunstein will be guest-blogging this week about his new book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (that's pronounced "nuhdge," not "noodge"). The book, which is cowritten with Prof. Richard H. Thaler, argues for a sort of choice-enhancing paternalism — a framework in which the government can create "choice architecture" that would push people into better decisions (i.e., ones that the actors on reflection would ultimately agree are better for them) by taking into account natural cognitive biases to which people are subject, without restricting freedom of choice.

Sunstein is now Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School, but he will be joining the faculty of Harvard Law School next year. He is the author of many books, including Republic.com 2.0, Worst-Case Scenarios, Infotopia, and Laws of Fear. He is also, by a large margin, the most-cited full-time law professor, judging by citations in law reviews. I'm sure that many of our readers will disagree with Sunstein's posts, but I'm also sure that they'll be interesting and provocative.

Fearless:
This should be interesting.

Sunstein is, of course, absolutely right about "libertarian paternalism," even if that is a horribly chosen turn of phrase.

Real libertarians, in contrast to Sunstein, totally ignore human nature, instead preferring to live in pie in the sky lala land.

This should be a sort of interesting set of posts. I predict on major theme will be realist versus idealist views of human nature.

Given the quality of VC lately, I expect these latest contributions by Sunstein to be significantly above the mean.
4.14.2008 8:15am
loki13 (mail):
The libertarian/paternal libertarian battle is sort of like the battle between classical economists and behavioral economists.

Or, put another way-
Yes, I know that's how it works in reality, but how does it work in theory?
4.14.2008 9:03am
Brian Mac:

"Real libertarians, in contrast to Sunstein, totally ignore human nature"

Then I guess Sowell doesn't qualify as a "real libertarian?" What an odd comment to make.
4.14.2008 9:08am
newshutz:
Biggest problem I see with using "human nature" to restrict guide choice, is that the understanding of human nature used is inevitably flawed and biased. It must be flawed, because our understanding of human nature is narrow and limited. It must be biased, because it will be a product of the political process.
4.14.2008 9:26am
loki13 (mail):

Biggest problem I see with using "human nature" to restrict guide choice, is that the understanding of human nature used is inevitably flawed and biased. It must be flawed, because our understanding of human nature is narrow and limited. It must be biased, because it will be a product of the political process.


Of course, you're correct. It is much more flawed to watch how real people work in the real world, and use those results (empirical studies). I think it is much better to allow the giant big heads of academe to posit what rational actors would do in any given situation, and craft the rules accordingly. Brilliant!
4.14.2008 9:40am
Sean M:
It should be an interesting week! The Conspiracy continues to prove that it is the late night talk show circuit for legal scholars with a book: If you want to plug the book, go blog on VC for a week.
4.14.2008 9:55am
BZ (mail):
Hmm, there are two teaching styles: "Sage on Stage" and "Guide by the Side". Wonder which Prof. Sunstein will offer this week? If he has a history of viewing VC, it might be different than if he just drops by to impart his wisdom. Looking forward to seeing his posts, though.
4.14.2008 10:28am
Bill Twist:
I'd be more interested if it was called "Nuge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness through Bowhunting".

But then I'm funny that way.
4.14.2008 11:19am
David M. Nieporent (www):
One of the things about Sunstein's libertarian paternalism is that it seems to focus a lot more on the latter than the former. That is, their work is about making libertarian situations more paternalistic, rather than vice versa. They'll talk about forcing people to choose if they want to opt out of putting money into a 401-k, but not so much about, e.g., allowing (let alone forcing) people to choose if they want to opt out of Social Security. They want to force people to choose to opt out of donating organs, but not to allow/force people to choose to opt out of the FDA's regulatory scheme for drugs.
4.14.2008 11:28am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Fearless-

Real libertarians, in contrast to Sunstein, totally ignore human nature, instead preferring to live in pie in the sky lala land.

That's pretty inaccurate. Libertarianism is basically one of the few political philosophies - if not the only one - that recognizes the realities of human nature.
4.14.2008 11:34am
cjwynes (mail):
Just reading the summary of the book's argument makes my stomach turn. Somebody who thinks he knows what's best for me wants to use government to structure my choices? I'd throw this book into the fireplace before I got 10 pages into it.

When the description of his book makes him sound like the cartoonish villian of an Ayn Rand novel, I somehow think he should be avoiding libertarian-friendly blogs. Surely there's a Remembering Mussolini blog somewhere where this paternalism will be welcomed. Posting it here just seems like trolling.
4.14.2008 11:41am
Javert:

. . . the government can create "choice architecture" that would push people into better decisions (i.e., ones that the actors on reflection would ultimately agree are better for them) by taking into account natural cognitive biases to which people are subject . . .

This is a page out of Plato's handbook for totalitarianism. The common man is by nature incapable of deciding for himself how best to guide his life. So he needs the direction of a philosopher king (i.e., bureaucrats with the power to force on us their "choice architecture").

All such arguments, as with this rewarmed version of Plato, have never resolved the following, contradiction. Because of "natural cognitive biases" (i.e., "biases" inherent in human nature), man is incapable of making "better decisions." But somehow those same "natural biases" do not hamper the decision making abilities of individuals in government.
4.14.2008 11:55am
loki13 (mail):
David,

I think you are confusing issues (hopefully not deliberately). To use Social Security (as an example), society has determined, through the functioning of a democratic government, that this program will be in place. To allow opt out would end up destroying the program as has been covered ad infinitum. If that's what you want, then fine! But that's not the same as the other issues you mention (how about opt out for income tax... or opt out for sales tax...)

This is different than, say, organ donation or 401Ks. In those cases, research has shown that people are choosing options that are poorer for them (and/or society as a whole) not because it is their rational choice, but rather because of how the choice is presented. Present the choice differently, they make a better choice. But they still have the same option.

IOW- you can still choose to donate your organs or not, but instead of opt-in, it's opt-out.
4.14.2008 11:57am
loki13 (mail):
Javert,

Do you ever let, uh, facts or, uh, reading get in the way of a bon mot?

To use organ donation (as an example)...

If the change is from opt in to opt out, and it improves organ donation rates, how does that restrict your choices? Aren't they still the same?

What about 401Ks? If you are given a prospectus when you start employment, and told that if you do NOTHING 5% (plus some match) will be put away, and you can choose not to do that, and you can also opt out later, how does that restrict your choice?
4.14.2008 12:00pm
Fearless:

That's pretty inaccurate. Libertarianism is basically one of the few political philosophies - if not the only one - that recognizes the realities of human nature.


I'm talking about human nature in the real world. Not human nature in theory.
4.14.2008 12:33pm
Sean M:
Have those posting heated rhetoric read the book? Or anything more than Eugene's brief synopsis?

We may not agree with Prof. Sustein, and maybe he won't be a full-time co-Conspirator. But surely he's a rather smart fellow, and we should listen seriously to what he has to say, right?
4.14.2008 12:36pm
Fearless:

One of the things about Sunstein's libertarian paternalism is that it seems to focus a lot more on the latter than the former. That is, their work is about making libertarian situations more paternalistic, rather than vice versa. They'll talk about forcing people to choose if they want to opt out of putting money into a 401-k, but not so much about, e.g., allowing (let alone forcing) people to choose if they want to opt out of Social Security. They want to force people to choose to opt out of donating organs, but not to allow/force people to choose to opt out of the FDA's regulatory scheme for drugs.


Could it be because these policies you suggest, besides being totally undesirable, are also politically impossible?

I can see default rules regarding 401k plans being adoped in the real world. I do not see opting out of social security or FDA regulatory schemes as being even remotely possible.

I think this your post is another great example of the libertarian obsession with the ideal over the real.
4.14.2008 12:39pm
AK (mail):
Thanks, Professor S, for giving me yet another reason to chuckle when Progressives insist that Jonah Goldberg's thesis about the Progressive roots of fascism is crazy. "We're not restricting your freedom to choose, we're just making it harder for you to make choices that don't benefit the common good."
4.14.2008 12:45pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
So Sunstein wrote this pseudonymously. Never would've thunk it.
4.14.2008 12:48pm
AK (mail):
Getting out of the FDA's licensing scheme? Easy. Just require the bottle of pills to say "not approved by the FDA, so if you take this and your gonads explode, don't come crying to the government." Social Security is harder. I'd love to trade not receiving benefits in 35 years for not paying FICA, but the government has to get the money for paying current retirees from somewhere, and if it doesn't come from FICA it will have to come from income taxes. One way or another I'm stuck paying for ear medicine from some old woman's cat.
4.14.2008 12:56pm
OrinKerr:
Chris24601,

David Borgenicht is my cousin; I assure you he is not Cass Sunstein in disguise.
4.14.2008 1:20pm
Chris 24601 (mail) (www):
I guess Sunstein must actually be "Joshua Piven," then.
4.14.2008 4:15pm
Dan Hamilton:
There is going to be a "choice architecture".

There is NO question about that.

Do YOU want the ONLY ones deciding what the defaults are to be from the LEFT!!!!

If you don't get into the game you can't win.

The reason this is important is simple. People are LAZY. No secret. No studies need to be performed. Everyone knows it. Let's make USE of it.
4.14.2008 4:28pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Fearless-

I'm talking about human nature in the real world. Not human nature in theory.

Yeah, that's the one I was talking about.
4.14.2008 6:06pm
Scipio79:
Ah, you've got to love the left. Sunstein et al. again try to tell us lesser rubes that the higher intellects should make decisions for us. Is this guy on Obama's staff?
4.14.2008 9:35pm