Food Nudges

Over at, Baylen Linnekin writes about the the growing call for Food Nudges.   The issue of libertarian paternalism - government enacting rules to, among other things, framing the way options are presented - has gained a lot of attention since news stories indicating the development of a "behavioral insights team."  

This is an important enough issue that I devoted all of chapter 4 of the Food Police  to this topic.  Here are a few of my quick thoughts on the issue:

  • "Libertarian paternalism" is certainly less objectionable than old-fashioned paternalism in that it presumably preserves freedom of choice, while only trying to nudge people toward the "correct" choice (thus, Bloomberg's large soda ban would be an example of old-fashioned paternalism whereas making the larger cups less prominently displayed would be an example of a nudge).
  • Nevertheless, there is a a key philosophical problem here in determining what is the "correct" or "best" choice toward which people should be nudged.  Who decides what is "best"?  And how can the bureaucrats objectively claim the option is "best" when people are choosing something different?  Here are the ways I put it in the book:
"Thus, the elite seek to replace each individual's judgement of the "good" with their own."
"The supposed proof of this irrational behavior is said to be found in survey responses in which we say we wished we weighed less or saved more.  But our current self will always wish that our previous self had dieted and saved more, because we are now in the position to reap the benefits without paying any of the costs.  The paternalist has simply decided that your abstract future self is right and your current-acting future self is wrong, and the only possible excuse the paternalist can give for his paternalism is his own preferences for your actions."
  • Paternalism - of any sort - is less objectionable when we're talking about children.  But, these arguments must cease a some age - otherwise we are merely wards of the state. 
  • There seems to be an under appreciation of the ability of competition and the market to structure the choice environment in a way that we most prefer (as determined by our actions).  It seems a little arrogant for some third-party to claim to "know" that re-arranging the choices to nudge us will lead to a "better" outcome, when there are hundred if not thousands of businesses competing for our paychecks, the most successful of which (the ones who stick around and multiply) offer those combinations of choice options we find most desirable.  
  • I am not at all claiming that our choices can't be influenced by the way they are framed or presented to us - the research seems pretty clear on that matter. However, when we begin to divorce the idea that the choices people make correspond with what they ultimately want, we open the door for all kinds of coercive and tyrannical behavior.  Much of the behavioral economics literature is useful - and I have no problem with the government using those insights to make the things they are already doing more efficient and less cognitively demanding on citizens (I'm thinking here of the pain in the rear it is to fill out my income tax forms), but I balk when we start to license a third party (or a "behavioral insights team") that presumes the responsibility to (directly via a ban or indirectly via a nudge) know what I should choose.