Monday, April 6, 2009

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's libertarian paternalism needs a better name.

I'm glad to see someone pointing out Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's abysmal branding of their potentially powerful theory. A Chicago Tribune article says:

[Thaler and Sunstein] co-wrote a book last year called "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness." In it, they put forth the idea that by shrewdly shaping the context in which individuals make decisions—something they call "choice architecture"—the government can help individuals eat better, plan wisely for their retirements and avoid polarizing arguments on issues as diverse as gay marriage and motorcycle helmet laws. The book and its ideas were quickly embraced by Britain's Conservative Party as a possible successor doctrine to Thatcherism. ... Thaler and Sunstein call their approach "libertarian paternalism," which may explain why the book has attracted less notice here [in America]. But that may change. Many of its Chicago School ideas were echoed by Obama during the presidential campaign and could soon become the playbook for his administration's economic policy. And Obama recently tapped Sunstein to be his regulatory czar, an obscure but potentially influential job.

Sunstein elaborates on the theory:
If a private company, or the government, offers something as the default, a lot of people will stick with it, even if a change is ridiculously simple to make. People often use what we call the "yeah, whatever" heuristic.

Why do defaults have such power? One reason involves inertia. People have a lot of things to think about, and especially when the choice is complicated, they're might well decide not to decide or to procrastinate. Another reason involves suggestion. When an option is described as a default, people often think, someone sensible thought that this is the way to go, and I might as well go along with what they thought.

For instance, Tulsa changed the default setting of its city printers to double-sided; the city estimates it will save over $40,000 a year.

As Sunstein admits, their theory obviously raises serious questions, like, "Who sets the defaults?" See this post if you're interested in answers to some common objections.

Sunstein also admits in that post that one of the main objections is to the name:
Objection: Libertarian paternalism is an ugly and confusing term. Ugh!

Answer: Maybe. Probably. Originally we wanted to call the book Libertarian Paternalism, and no one wanted to publish that book. So we called it Nudge.

The book title is obviously a moot point since the book has been published. But the theory is a dynamic thing that could either thrive or die out. The name could seriously affect the fate of the theory (which could in turn affect public policy).

So what should it be called?

"Libertarian paternalism" is too much of a mouthful. It's just too many syllables. And it's so Orwellian that it's practically begging to be made fun of. "Paternalism," even aside from being blatantly sexist, does not have positive connotations for most people, at least most Americans. (Considering that Sunstein and Thaler's premise is that they're attuned to subtle psychological reactions, I'm surprised they missed this.)

Sunstein explains that people shouldn't take the term to be an oxymoron:
The approach is libertarian in the sense that it preserves freedom of choice. It is paternalistic in the sense that it tries to produce good outcomes for choosers.

Note that I'm not critical of the theory itself. I like the theory, which is why I want it to have a better name.

"Nudge" (which is what Sunstein and Thaler seem to call it on their blog, Nudge) is too breezy. Since it's already a familiar verb, you'd always need to explain what you mean, which would seem to defeat the purpose of a snappy buzzword. And it conjures up a negative image: someone pushing you around (albeit gently).

"Choice architecture"? That's not as bad as "libertarian paternalism," but it's still a mouthful. (The word "architecture" itself is a mouthful -- try saying it 3 times fast.) More importantly, it's too authoritarian. If you take the metaphor seriously, it sounds like there's an "architect" putting everything in exactly the right place, which would seem to contradict the idea of individual freedom.

How about "structured choice"? Or "choice framing"?

You want to suggest that there's this big framework -- not one that's pushing (nudging) you around, but one that's actually inviting, because whether you stick with the default or switch to something else, you'll be able to do what you want.

Or we could just take a cue from Sunstein and call it the "yeah, whatever" theory.

Hmm ... "the avuncular state"?