Rebranding Manipulation


It’s all very natural, of course, but we have a tendency to let understanding of techniques change our moral equation about a thing.  When we see how the magic works — whether light or dark — we lose our sense of good and evil.

Label a serial killer “mentally ill,” and it’s harder to see him as a monster, even though his acts and motives are exactly the same.  It’s a peculiar magic trick in its own right, as if understanding the process by which the Devil corrupts a person changes the existential import of the corruption.  In either case, what’s wanted is to save the victim, and in either case, the moral judgment of an act should derive from other principles than the stages of corruption

That a bad action has been analyzed and described does not make it otherwise than wrong; that the forces of good could replicate the tactics of evil does not make them right.  Ends do not justify means.

Such is my reaction to an article in which Rich Thau and Celeste Gregory advise conservatives to “harness behavioral science”:

In Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler advocate for what they call “libertarian paternalism.” They argue that policymakers, whether or not they realize it, are “choice architects” responsible for “organizing the context in which people make decisions.” By recognizing human tendencies to errors and biases, these architects can present choices in a way that will “nudge” people to choose what the architect has decided is the best choice.

Call it what you want — throw in jargon like “choice architecture” and euphemisms like “nudge” — but the action in question is still manipulation, and it isn’t right.

There’s a gray area in all interpersonal interactions, but there’s a difference between persuasion and deliberately manipulating circumstances to make it more difficult to choose any option other than the one that the “architect” desires.  The latter is a sort of benign torture; the torturer just wants the victim to do the right thing (divulge some information that will save lives, for example), and the pain that he inflicts is nothing other than “organizing the context in which people make decisions.”  You can make the pain stop at any time; you’re doing it to yourself.

The difference becomes even less gray when the government is involved:

Other behaviors that Sunstein and Thaler would like the government to nudge citizens toward include making organ donations (by recommending an “opt out” option rather than the explicit consent system currently in effect), wearing motorcycle helmets (by requiring a special license for those who choose to not wear one), and using credit cards more responsibly (by forcing credit card companies to send customers an annual statement that lists and totals all fees incurred in the course of the past year).

The argument is that people don’t lose any options, but in these examples, the government is using its power as a tool to manipulate. The “architects” have claimed political power as a means of defining for everybody else what the “better decisions” are.  As new strategies emerge for manipulation (under the label, “advances in behavioral science”), the rules will expand, and the pain of not making the preferred choice will increase.

This points to the difference between government “nudging” and private persuasion and marketing:

Sunstein and Thaler’s repeated invoking of “libertarian paternalism” is an attempt to win over people from across the political spectrum. While the authors clearly lean liberal (despite their self-described “libertarian” orientation), they emphasize over and over that no individual is ever forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do, which is designed to placate conservatives suspicious of the authors’ liberal motives. Similarly, the pair convey throughout Nudge their simple desire to help people make better decisions. The result, however, is that these decisions advance the authors’ robust view of government’s role in Americans’ lives.

Whether or not these particular authors have “liberal motives” is immaterial, because their project is progressive use of government to take a side in value judgements over which it ought to have no influence. Thau and Gregory offer an excellent illustration when they subsequently suggest a government regimen of “pro-marriage messaging,” including in schools.  Some such messaging might be advisable, particularly when implemented at the local level and as a general default when the question comes up for other reasons.

But the more important part of their discussion of marriage is the sampling of disincentives to marriage that government has created.  Clearly, the idea of “nudging” is not new, even if the scientific verbiage may be; it is enough to end those disincentives, those nudges.  In the case of same-sex marriage, it would be enough not to contradict the cultural view of marriage… and then to let the culture accomplish the pressures and arguments in more appropriate ways.

Conceding that encouraging “better decisions” is an appropriate use of government would close the argument on whether government should be an agent of morality.  Closing that door leaves society in a political cage match to the death, in a winner-take-all fight for government offices and judicial seats.  Saying that the government is the voice of “the people” is just a way of saying that one’s own side is able to win political battles more than economic competitions or philosophical debates.

And when political battles reach that fevered, desperate pitch, our civilization will fall entirely into a web of manipulation, to the inevitable benefit of those able to spin it, and that is an evil end.

  • Mike

    Governments have always manipulated–see, as you mention above, "taxes." You want more of something, subsidize it (single mothers, welfare, etc). You want less–tax it (cigarettes, wealthy and/or successful people, etc.). You can still do–or not do–the incentivized or de-incentivized activity; only the threshold has changed. What's new?

    The challenge is selecting which activity to assist/deter. Is it the "Public Good" that gets promoted–or political calculation? For example, we have Obamacare. To keep costs down, the government wants to incentivize healthy choices–or mandate them (Bloomberg). But we also celebrate–or at least mainstream–homosexuality and single motherhood; both are "lifestyles" that have massive long-term costs. Homosexuals (males, in particular) have decreased life expectancy and, in general, higher hospital and heathcare costs. Single motherhood drives poverty and, over the long term, less capable future citizenry (children less likely to be educated, etc.). The list goes on. So, are the powers that be promoting the public good or establishing a political dynasty?

  • mangeek

    So… The government shouldn't be an instrument of morality… unless it's controlling prostitution, substance abuse, or what combinations of people are allowed to get married.

    I see how this works.

    • justinkatz

      Yeah, no, I don't think you see how it works. For one, you didn't address what I had to say about marriage. For another, there are certain to be disagreements of policy. Your freedom to engage in a particular activity openly in your neighborhood inherently affects the local society. Some of this is moral judgment; some of it is an assessment of practical consequence. Handled at the local level and with a great deal of skepticism, it's the compromise that enables real, meaningful self government.

      To insist on total do-as-you-wish policy, however, is to impose a moral order in which all consequences and preferences (no matter how universally held) are subordinated to the desires of individuals. (At the very least, you would have to increase the freedom of people who disagree with an activity to shun, exclude, and hide from view those who engage in it.)

      But if a local community wants to impose restrictions, then it should do so with outright bans — honestly presenting the behavior and arguing over its consequences. It should not use the resources of government to manipulate the public to make legal activities more difficult.

  • Dan

    I'm not as willing to say that "making legal activities more difficult" is necessarily a bad thing. What if the "legal activity" is directly contributing to a feedback loop of ever-expanding government dependence and bureaucracy? If an outright reversal of public policy isn't politically achievable, then "manipulation" can be a less bad alternative to at least shift incentives in a positive direction. To take one example, it's entirely legal right now to sit on unemployment for years and go kayaking/birdwatching around Rhode Island while making only a token attempt to find full-time employment and get off of public assistance. This is an incentives problem, but the political reality is that unemployment benefits in their current form are here to stay. What we could realistically do is make it much more difficult and unpleasant to keep receiving such benefits. Rigorous job retraining requirements, documentation requirements, financial auditing, use of private investigators to root out fraud – even though ostensibly all "bigger government" in the short term – could very well shift incentives back in the right direction and lead to a much smaller state in the longer term.

  • Warrington Faust

    "manipulation" as it is called here is as old as government itself, one could say it is the reason governments are formed. If the degree of "manipulation" seems to have increased, it must be understood as what the "governed" desired. What amazes is the lack of success in that "manipulation". Consider the two great examples of social "manipulation" of the last century, "Prohibition" and the "War on drugs". Was there any notable success? During the decade of "Prohibition", you could buy a Thompson machine gun in a hardware store. That one has always struck a chord with me.