The idea of paternalism in the United States is full of contradictions, challenges, and conflicting opinions. Many people in the country don’t want to be told what to do by anyone, and don’t want to appear as though they are accepting paternalistic messages or nudges. Some people fully buy into the idea of paternalism, looking for prescribed rules and ways of living. And most of us have a mixture of people we view as leaders and role models, from whom we expect paternalistic messages.
In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write, “In our understanding, a policy is paternalistic if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves” [emphasis in original]. This is the definition I am working with for paternalism. The idea is that someone else can know what is best for us, even if we don’t see it ourselves.
I believe that a lot of conflict in the United States today stems from the people and authority figures we are willing to accept paternalistic messages from. Some people in the United States, I include myself in this group, will accept paternalistic messages from university professors, while others will reject their messages. Leaders who we will accept messages from can be religious leaders, community elders, parents, successful business people, or even celebrities. For all of us, there is a set of people that we look to for guidance and advice. A set of people that we believe knows what might be best for us. The fact that our set of leaders can be very different and in some instances be completely discredited by others can lead to a lot of friction across our populace.
Nevertheless, what all these figures have in common is that they all can be in a position to be a choice architect. As Thaler and Sunstein write, “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Business leaders shape the decision context for people’s healthcare, retirement savings, and many other daily choices. Religious leaders can shape the way people think about charitable giving and volunteering. Community leaders can influence the same choices and university professors can influence the way people think about certain situations. In all of these contexts, the way that choices are framed, the choices that are presented as viable options, and how people understand their agency can be influenced by a choice architect.
By nature then, choice architects are paternalistic. They are in charge of the form you use to sign up for healthcare, the range of volunteer and charitable activities that are available to you for consideration, and the responses that are considered appropriate for you when thinking about politics, society, and individual behaviors. Someone else presents you with options and decisions they believe are best for you.
Choice architects are very important because the way they frame a choice or decision can greatly influence the behaviors of many people. Presumably, choice architects want to maximize the good outcomes that arise from the choices they shape. This means that how they structure decisions, what they consider viable alternatives, and how they build decision frameworks can have huge consequences for what people actually do. A good health benefits sign-up form can influence whether people select a healthcare plan that actually fits their needs. A good sense of where volunteering can do the most good can drive a pastor or community leader to engage their followers in a meaningful way, and a university professor who can frame thoughts and decisions in a meaningful direction can help people think about problems in new and ways. Of course, in each setting, the choice architect could be wrong, and could mislead people, could make an error that hurts people financially, leads to wasted time, or frustrates people. It may be paternalistic to think that a choice architect knows what is best and can guide people toward what is best for them, but the alternative, having the choice architect pull back and not accept this paternalistic responsibility, can have even more serious consequences.