Fear of Falling

There are a lot of things out there to be afraid of, and there seem to be phobias named for each one. For example, you may not be familiar with bathmophobia, which is an abnormal and persistent fear of stairs or steep slopes, or a fear of falling. Less well known is “nudgephobia,” also known as the Whitman-Rizzo syndrome, which is the fear of being gently nudged down a slope while standing on a completely flat surface. This phobia is sometimes associated with other disorders such as the fear of being given helpful directions when lost; the fear of obtaining reliable medical advice when sick; and, in rare cases, some have even suffered from a fear of having someone recommend a book or movie that you will really like.

It is presumably bathmophobia that has led Professor Whitman (and his co-author Mario Rizzo) to be so afraid that the policies that Cass Sunstein and I call libertarian paternalism will eventually lead to society falling down a steep cliff. I attribute this critique to an irrational phobia because I cannot make any other sense of it.

First, let’s be clear about what Sunstein and I mean by libertarian paternalism. We use the word libertarian (small “l”) as an adjective to modify paternalism, and it implies that we advocate policies that maintain people’s freedom to choose at as low a cost as possible. As for paternalism, we say on page five of our book, and repeat ad nauseam, that we call a policy paternalistic “if it tries to influence choices in a way that makes choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” (The emphasis is in the original.) Nonetheless, Whitman accuses us (and some of our fellow behavioral economics travelers) of wanting to push people in the directions that we ourselves prefer. I am not sure how we could have been any clearer that this is precisely not our intent, and I am not sure how we would have decided what to push for since Sunstein and I do not agree ourselves. I am a lover of fine wines; Cass prefers Diet Coke. With fundamental philosophical differences such as these, we wouldn’t get very far in pushing in the directions we prefer! This applies to the rest of our gang as well. Matthew Rabin prefers to dress in tie-dyed T-shirts, but I have never known him to lobby for a subsidy for this article of clothing.

Whitman accuses us of playing a devious rhetorical trick (using our knowledge of “extremeness aversion”) in describing the policies we prefer as moderate. However, I am not sure in what world Glen lives. Consider a continuum with anarchy at one pole and totalitarianism at the other. The Libertarian Ideal would be a couple notches away from anarchy, and most Western societies would be somewhere in the middle. It is in this middle territory that libertarian paternalism sits.

Consider the current interest in the rising obesity rate in the United States. The anarchist would allow anyone to sell and eat everything. No food or restaurant inspections and no penalties even for those who knowingly sell food that makes people sick. The totalitarian would tell everyone what to eat and where to eat it. Nudge-type policies would include things like displaying the fruit more prominently in cafeterias, posting calories in fast food restaurants (where the costs of doing so are low) or making ingredient labeling in grocery stores more prominent and user friendly. Others, soft paternalists such as O’Donoghue and Rabin, might advocate a sin tax on fat or sugar. Camerer et al favor cooling off periods for big ticket purchases, a policy that might have helped mitigate some of the sub-prime mortgage crisis had it applied in that domain. Whatever you think of such policies they are certainly moderate compared to bans and mandates on one side, and eliminating health inspections on the other.

Another basic point that Whitman does not recognize is that paternalism of some sort is inevitable. Consider the following common problem. Most firms have an open enrollment period in November when employees can elect their benefit package for the following year. At my employer, the University of Chicago, you have a few weeks to log on to the appropriate web site and make your selections. The question is, what should the employer do for those employees who forget to log on? (Professors’ reputations for absent-mindedness are well deserved.) For each of the choices the employee has, the employer needs to select a default option for those who do not log on, and normally the default is either “same choice as last year” or “back to zero” (meaning, decline this option). At Chicago the default option for the health insurance plan is the same as last year.

Of course it is possible to criticize this choice of the default option, but it is essential to understand that the employer must choose something. Some employers use “back to zero,” which minimizes the costs to the employer; somewhat less drastic would be to default employees into the plan that is cheapest for the employer; one could even choose a default plan at random (don’t laugh — this is the strategy used for some participants in the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage implemented by the Bush administration); or the employer could somehow force employees to make a choice. The Nudge philosophy here is that the person who designs the plan, whom we call the choice architect, should choose the default that she thinks, all things considered, will make the participants best off. Does Professor Whitman have a better suggestion?

Finally, let’s turn to the problem of bathmophobia. Whitman argues that if we are thinking about some policy such as automatically enrolling employees into the retirement plan, and letting them opt out, we need to consciously add into our calculation the risks that this will lead to something else, presumably something bad. Whitman keeps repeating, in italics, that the slope risk must be counted among the costs of the initial intervention. But where is the evidence for this slope risk?

Presumably, if libertarian paternalism creates a slope risk then real paternalism must generate a “cliff” risk. But have we seen this in history? In America we started as Puritans but moved away from it. When Prohibition was passed into law it did not lead to a slew of other paternalistic interventions. On the contrary, once society got to see prohibition in action, the law was eventually repealed. Is there any evidence of a paternalistic slide? The only example Whitman gives is smoking, where there certainly has been a progression of increasingly intrusive laws passed. But there are several problems with this example. First, most of the anti-smoking laws are based on externalities, not paternalism. People do not want to fly, eat, or work in smoke-filled environments. Indeed, many smokers favor such laws. Note that while smoking bans are not nudges, they are shoves, even these shoves do not seem to have led to a batch of similar crackdowns in other domains. I have not seen any municipality institute a ban on loud talking in restaurants, for example, though come to think of it… .

In short, the risk of the slippery slope appears to be a figment of Professor Whitman’s imagination, and clear evidence of his bathmophobia. To be fair to him, this phobia is hardly unique to him and Professor Rizzo. Slope-mongering is a well-worn political tool used by all sides in the political debate to debunk any idea they oppose. For example, when the proposal was made to replace the draft with an all-volunteer army, the opponents said this would inevitably lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences because we were turning our military into a band of mercenaries. The argument is perfectly versatile. If we allow (blacks, women, gays… .) into the military then (fill in the awful but inevitable consequence here). If we allow free speech then we will give voice to the next Hitler. “Allowing a partial privatization of Social Security will destroy the moral fabric of our society.” Never mind that Sweden did it a decade ago. You get the idea.

Instead of slope-mongering we should evaluate proposals on their merits. (We devote a chapter of Nudge to an evaluation of the choice architecture used in Sweden’s social security experience.) Helping people make better choices, as judged by themselves, is really not a controversial goal, is it?

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Rise of the New Paternalism by Glen Whitman

    In his lead essay, Glen Whitman argues that “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism lends itself to ever more intrusive regulations in a variety of ways. Some of these are due to the very cognitive biases that advocates of soft paternalism have identified in their own research. For example, behavioral economists note that people exhibit extremeness aversion – a phenomenon in which they avoid what appear to be extreme positions. Yet introducing some amount of paternalism will make more paternalism, rather than less, appear to be the plausible middle ground. The dividing line between “soft” and “hard” paternalism is difficult to find, and Whitman offers many reasons why policymakers will tend toward more and more intrusive paternalism over time.

Response Essays

  • The Dangers of Letting Someone Else Decide by Jonathan Klick

    Jonathan Klick argues that not only is the slippery slope real, but a host of other difficulties lie ahead for libertarian paternalists. While we might find academic behavioral economists sensible regulators, in reality regulations are made by lobbyists and Congressional staffers, whose incentives don’t necessarily lie in the direction of good policy. In the long term, too, allowing people to shift the burden of decision to others will habituate people to not deciding – and stunt their abilities.

  • Of Frogs and Men by Shane Frederick

    Shane Frederick explores some of the unanswered questions of soft paternalism. He admits that Whitman is right to doubt whether we can postulate a given preference set as the “true” one for all time, for a given individual, and by implication for a given society. Still, he argues, this doesn’t mean we must refrain from all opinions about the behavior of others. Why not express such opinions in our choice architecture, if they are sincerely held and not terribly hard to opt out of?

The Conversation