On Freedom, Paternalism, and Power

"Can politics offer any such self-correcting mechanisms? Sunstein suggests that government nudges are appropriate as long as they are “constrained by democratic requirements, including transparency, public debate, and independent monitoring (including continuing evaluation of how nudges work in practice),” and are “respectful of individual rights.” However, the structure of incentives under which public political deliberation takes place makes it unlikely that citizens will debate these issues fruitfully or support suitable constraints on the power to nudge, even if, by hypothesis, non-abusive nudging will benefit them. Voters have little incentive to spend time and money studying politics, given that each individual ballot has vanishingly small chances to affect political outcomes. Scholars have amply documented this “rational ignorance” effect. But perhaps no less importantly, politicians have incentives to appeal to, rather than challenge, political views that look reasonable in the eyes of uninformed citizens. As Fernando Tesón and I argued in Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation: A Theory of Discourse Failure (2006), the rhetorical equilibrium that stems from the mutually reinforcing interaction between widespread political ignorance and political posturing is predictably at odds with the views that prevail in rigorous social research.[1] Ironically, some of the cognitive biases described by Sunstein, such as the “present bias” that explains the resilience of self-destructive addictions, can only reinforce such discursive pathologies, as illustrated by the growth in deficit spending prior to elections—the “political myopia” predicted by economic models of political decision-making.[2] In The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007), Brian Caplan describes various types of biases affecting voting behavior, and argues that such forms of irrationality are due to the low personal cost of being mistaken at the polling booth. These findings cast doubts on the hope that “democratic requirements” will prevent government from misusing the power to nudge."