Freedom for Me, Myself or I?11. March 2013 by Herman Brodie
A online debate about the merits and dangers of nudging – the ‘soft’ paternalism Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein promoted in their 2008 book, ‘Nudge’, came to the brink of degeneration last week. The detractors criticised the insidiousness of the behavioural interventions. Nudgers, they suggested, use crafty psychological manipulation to rob people of their individual freedoms in the pursuit of questionable public policy goals; even marketers are more honest about their intentions.
My colleague addressed one of these concerns last week. His point was that although one might not trust policymakers to help you make decisions any more than a marketer, one of them is going to do it anyway. In many cases, there is no situation that is nudge-free.
What I want to talk about is the individual freedom the nudge critics are so keen to defend. I like the idea of freedom of choice, but which ‘me’ should have this freedom? Is this the ‘me’ who wants to cut back on calories or the ‘me’ who walks right past the salad bar with his plate piled high with spaghetti carbonara? Is it the ‘me’ who vows to go for a run before work or the ‘me’ who snoozes the alarm clock and pulls the duvet back over his head? Is this the ‘me’ to promises to save more or the ‘me’ who is seduced by the newest smartphone on payday. Freedom given to one of these manifestations of me automatically takes it away from the other.
The research on inter-temporal choice – usually under the tag ‘hyperbolic discounting’ – shows that preference reversals such as these are very common. As such, it is pointless to claim one is defending individual freedoms by opposing nudging techniques. I will be denied my freedom in any case; the nudge simply increases the likelihood that the impulsive, myopic, thoughtless ‘me’ will see his liberties constrained, not the thoughtful, forward-looking, cautious ‘me’.