Let's Banish Nudges and Bans

Nudges and Bans have become all the rage today. We were told recently how in New York, there is a drive to prevent people who are on food stamps from buying sugary sodas. This, of course, is a patronizing elitist attitude that is becoming increasingly popular, similar to the old Temperance Movement, where poor people are punished for being poor and told how to behave.

We know that major ideological controversies are over; in spite of the mid term elections, the raging battles over how to organize and plan society between Left and Right gone. Now it seems that interference and "we know what's best for you" to eat and drink, how "well" we recycle and a range of issues from retirement to smoking, are all witness to the ascendancy based on "behavioral economics."

Behaviorists, or those that would "nudge" us in a certain direction -- a term derived from Nudge Theory advocates Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler -- do not believe that humans are rational beings. President Obama is of course a big fan of this outlook as is David Cameron, the British Prime Minister who has a "behavioural insight team". They think that we will make the "wrong" kind of choices and decisions and need to be "nudged" and helped along in the "right" direction. This has quite considerable affection among those who consider themselves liberal minded.

However, government are supposed to represent the people and not to be engaged in mind-bending experiments to reach the deepest recesses of our consciousness in an attempt to re-program our private lives and activities. We need an injection of a bit of the old Enlightenment idea, that humans are autonomous agents who can shape the world. Indeed, Locke and Mill argued specifically that people would be able to make choices that others would consider stupid or wrong. The American idea of the right to the pursuit of happiness is also in danger of being eroded significantly.

Interestingly, since the widespread smoking bans that occurred internationally and that Mayor Bloomberg has been such an advocate of, it has become ever more popular to ban things on the basis that they are either unhealthy for people, or that they give offense (see Burqa bans in Europe and the discussion about Park 51 Center). Second hand smoking was always a questionable reason (epidemiologists proved beyond doubt in 1967 smoking was correlated to heart and lung disease although second hand smoke is far less clear). However, the proposal to ban smoking in parks and beaches shows how the real objective is simply an increasing control over the private sphere and personal behavior dressed up as "doing good." Dr. Thomas Farley, New York's Health Commissioner is one of the leading advocates of reaching further in to our lives. He has for some time been obsessed with "curve shifters" and focusing on smoking, alcohol, food and sexual behavior and is a prime "choice architect." Now there is an oxymoron if ever there was one. This continual focus on citizens personal behavior illuminates starkly how few macro ideas administrators and politicians have for having an impact on how we organize resources in society to meet our demands. Resources after all, despite what it may be fashionable to believe, are not limited, fixed or finite -- but change as innovation and technology develops and as we develop. They can be distributed and organized in all manner of fashions too. Some more consideration about economics, expansion, reducing unemployment and improving and developing health provision is the realm of politics. Not tinkering with subliminal messages as "nudgers" or banning things as shovers.

While people often bemoan the state of "perpetual advertising" and commercials everywhere, there has been remarkably less said about politicians trying to send us subliminal messages. Then again, some of the messages are entirely blatant. The First Lady believes we need to be lectured about what food to consume and, like some strange Malcolm-Gladwell tract where all the world is about some superficial behavioral theory, politicians, bereft of broader principles about how to organize or shape the world, increasingly dream up ways to influence the area we are supposed to be enjoying without interference.

The quote usually ascribed to Voltaire, that "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it," is the spirit of uninhibited free speech, to say what offends as what is banal is never challenged. Similarly, we need an injection of tolerance, that wonderful idea that says we tolerate others lawful behavior, regardless of our opinion of it -- although should not be expected to respect it at all. If we are to ban anything, it should be the encroachment of bureaucrats in to our private lives and minds.

While increasingly some governments cannot seem to organize the public sphere of society - constantly relying on private military teams and focus groups and consultants - they seem to want to colonize the private sphere. The principle of grown up adults being autonomous citizens that are not to be lectured like juveniles should be paramount. We don't need "choice architects" and certainly do not need ongoing bans. We can negotiate our lives quite well and in fact, as history has demonstrated, it is ordinary people who change the world, educated or not.

What we are lacking in the political sphere is the reflection of and assertion of compelling choices about how we should organize our world and why. The mid terms had few who had anything of substance to say about that. Lets stop with the insulting behavior modification that is Orwellian and something better placed in a Brave New World novel. Politicians should represent the people and thrash out ideas in public. We can be our own architects of choice -- and of the world.