As a result, Thaler and Sunstein argue, many of the familiar arguments for why people should simply be left to make choices on their own, and especially for why government should stay strictly out of the way, have little practical force. In many important areas of choice that matter both to the individual and to the rest of us (for example, when overuse of medical care drives up our insurance premiums and our taxes), the operative question is not whether to bias people’s decisions, but in which direction.
Thaler, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Sunstein, a law professor formerly at Chicago but now at Harvard, apply this line of argument to a wide array of familiar areas: saving, borrowing, energy consumption,smoking, teenage pregnancy and many others. Along the way they present fascinating findings about how people actually make decisions, together with lots of personal advice: save more, diversify your investments, don’t invest much in your employer’s stock, don’t pay points on mortgages, buy insurance with the biggest deductible you can afford, don’t pay for extended warranties. But their main objective is to reshape public policy (Sunstein is an informal adviser to Barack Obama, who has advanced some “Nudge”-like policy ideas), and it’s clear that the suggestions they care most about apply to ways in which governments can do a better job of guiding the choices made by their citizens. The goal, in part, is to nudge people toward healthier, safer, more prosperous lives while also addressing pressing issues like environmental damage and the rising cost of health care.
If all this sounds paternalistic, that’s because it is. Thaler and Sunstein adopt the deliberately oxymoronic label “libertarian paternalism” to describe their general approach. It’s libertarian in that people retain the right to make their own choices: they’re free to select the savings plan with the lowest projected return if that’s what they really want. But the government — or an employer, or the person in charge of laying out the food in the cafeteria — is nonetheless nudging people in the direction that somebody thinks will make them better off.
The conceptual argument is powerful, and most of the authors’ suggestions are common sense at its best: Set up 401(k) programs so that employees have to opt out if they want, rather than making them opt in. (At present, roughly 30 percent of employees eligible for 401(k)’s don’t sign up, despite the enticement of employer matching contributions.) Do the same for organ donation. Make credit card companies offer an automatic full-payment option. Offer investment vehicles that provide automatic portfolio rebalancing. Most of these ideas work because of the human tendency, widely documented, toward what Thaler and Sunstein call “inertia.” Most of us just call it laziness.
In the end, however, “Nudge” is somewhat thin on practical ideas for public policy that follow from the authors’ core insight. Many of the suggestions Thaler and Sunstein make, in contexts like savings and mortgages and credit cards, amount to calls for greater disclosure (what did all of those credit card fees total last year?) or for presenting information in a clearer way (to make price comparisons for mortgages easier). Surely no one except the companies making the profits would oppose more disclosure and clearer information. But we don’t need behavioral economics, or libertarian paternalism, to think such proposals might be helpful.
And the authors occasionally strike a false note. Their recommendation to allow patients to sign away the right to sue doctors for malpractice, for example — presumably in return for lower medical bills — doesn’t resemble the argumentation elsewhere in the book. The threat of lawsuits, they reason, gives doctors little incentive to be more careful because malpractice insurance isn’t “experience rated”; in other words, the premium charged doesn’t depend on the doctor’s past record as it does for, say, drivers. (Oddly, they accept the seemingly conflicting view that the threat of lawsuit is expensive because it leads doctors to prescribe unnecessary tests.) Why don’t they suggest that malpractice insurance be experience rated too? Read The Rest Here.