While writing about the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, I have primarily focused on an idea that the authors call Libertarian Paternalism. The idea is to structure choices and use nudges (slight incentives and structural approaches) to guide people toward making the best possible decision as judged by themselves. Maintaining free choice and the option to investigate or chose alternatives is an important piece of the concept, as is the belief that we will influence people’s decisions no matter what, so we should use that influence in a responsible way to help foster good decision-making.
But the authors also ask if it is reasonable to go a step beyond Libertarian Paternalism. Is it reasonable for choice architects, governments, and employers to go further than gentle nudges in decision situations? Are there situations where decision-making is too important to be left to the people, where paternalistic decision-making is actually best? Sunstein and Thaler present an introduction to Asymmetric Paternalism as one possible step beyond Libertarian Paternalism.
“A good approach to thinking about these problems has been proposed by a collection of behavioral economists and lawyers under the rubric of Asymmetric Paternalism. Their guiding principle is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.”
This approach is appealing in many ways, but also walks the line between elitism, the marginalization of entire segments of society, and maximizing good decision-making. I hate having to make lots of decisions regarding appropriate tax filings, I don’t want to have to make decisions on lots of household appliances, and I don’t really want to have to spend too much time figuring out exactly what maintenance schedule is the best for all of my cars. However, I do want to get into the weeds of my healthcare plan, I want to micromanage my exercise routine, and I want to select all the raw ingredients that go into the dinners and lunches that I cook. On some decisions that I make, I want to outsource my decision-making and I would often be happy with having someone else make a decision so that I don’t have to. But in other areas, I feel very sophisticated in my decision-making approach, and I want to have maximum choice and freedom. Asymmetric Paternalism seems like a good system for those of us who care deeply about some issues, are experts in some areas, and want to maintain full decision-making in the areas we care about, while exporting decision-making in other areas to other people.
Of course, prejudices, biases, and people’s self-interest can ruin this approach. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to deem entire groups of people as unworthy of making decisions for themselves by default? Could they ever recover and be able to exercise their freedom to chose in important areas like housing, retirement, and investment spaces? Would we be able to operate for long periods of time under a system of Asymmetric Paternalism without the system devolving due to our biases and prejudices? These are real fears, and while we might like to selectively trade off decision-making when it is convenient for us, we also have to fear that someone else will be making decisions for us that are self-serving for someone other than ourselves.
The point, according to Sunstein and Thaler, would be to maintain the freedom of decision-making for everyone, but to structure choices in a way where those with less interest and less ability to make the best decisions are guided more strongly toward what is likely the best option for them. However, we can see how this system of asymmetric paternalism would get out of control. How do we decide where the appropriate level is to draw the line between strong guidance and outright choosing for people? Would people voluntarily give up their ability to chose and overtime hand over too many decisions without an ability to get their decision authority back? Transparency in the process may help, but it might not be enough to make sure the system works.