Who to Fear: Public vs Private Choice Architects

A question that Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler raise in their book Nudge is whether we should worry more about public or private sector choice architects. A choice architect is anyone who influences the decision space of another individual or group. Your office’s HR person in charge of health benefits is a choice architect. The people at Twitter who decided to increase the character length of tweets are choice architects. The government bureaucrat who designs the form you use to register to vote is also a choice architect. The decisions that each individual or team makes around the choice structure for other people’s decisions will influence the decisions and behaviors of people in those choice settings.

 

In the United States, we often see a split between public and private that is feels more concrete than the divide truly is. Often, we fall dramatically on one side of the imagined divide, either believing everything needs to be handled by businesses, or thinking that businesses are corrupt and self-interested and that government needs to step in to monitor almost all business actions. The reality is that businesses and government agencies overlap and intersect in many complex ways, and that choice architects in both influence the public and each other in complex ways. Regardless of what you believe and what side you fall on, both choice architects need to be taken seriously.

 

“On the face of it, it is odd to say that the public architects are always more dangerous than the private ones. After all, managers in the public sector have to answer to voters, and managers in the private sector have as their mandate the job of maximizing profits and share prices, not consumer welfare.”

 

Sunstein and Thaler suggest that we should be concerned about private sector choice architects because they are ultimately responsible to company growth and shareholder value, rather than what is in the best interest of individuals. When conflicts arise between what is best for people and what is best for a company’s bottom line, there could be pressure on the choice architect to use nudges to help the bottom line rather than to help people make the best decisions possible.

 

However, the public sector is not free from perverse incentives simply by being elected, being accountable to the public, or being free from profit motives. Sunstein and Thaler continue, “we agree that government officials, elected or otherwise, are often captured by private-sector interests whose representatives are seeking to nudge people in directions that will specifically promote their selfish goals.” The complex interplay of government and private companies means that even the public sector is not a space purely dedicated to public welfare. The general public doesn’t have the time, attention, energy, or financial resources to influence public sector choice architects in the ways that the private sector does. And if private sector influences shape choice structures via public elected officials, they can create a sense of legitimacy for ultimately selfish decisions. Of course, public sector choice architects could be more interested in keeping their job or winning reelection, and may promote their own selfish goals for self-preservation reasons as well.

 

We can’t think of public sector or private sector actors as being more trustworthy or responsible than the other. Often times, they overlap and influence each other, shifting the incentives and opinions of the public and the actors within public and private sectors simultaneously. Sunstein and Thaler suggest that this is a reason for maintaining the maximal choice freedom possible. The more people have their own ability to make choices, even if they are nudged, the more we can limit the impact of self-serving choice architects, whether they are in the public or private sectors.

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