Written by Insula Qui
Edited by Nullus Maximus, from Zeroth Position
Highly influenced by “Nudge”, where you can find most references.
We covered libertarian paternalism in the framework of anarcho-capitalism last week, so this week we need to tackle the most important part of libertarian paternalism: the nudge. As we have already laid the groundwork for why this is a possible policy in the scope of an anarcho-capitalist polity, we must now work out what nudges would be appropriate in a completely free society and how they would be accomplished. Nudging, a concept proposed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their aptly titled work Nudge, is the use of choice architecture to incentivize people to make better decisions without actually removing any choice from them. The framework in which a choice is made can influence the decision that is taken. Libertarian paternalism is a philosophical position, and nudging is a practical proposal to implement that position. This article will be split into two parts. The first will discuss how nudges can be used by private companies for the benefit of all parties involved, while the second will explain how libertarian statecraft can utilize nudging.
The first important topic is advertising, as it is the way that most businesses currently utilize nudging. Advertising is a completely nonviolent and usually innocent part of the economy, and it showcases the actual power of nudges. Many libertarians will claim that advertising just serves to inform people of the available options, and this is true insofar as people are rational. But as long as people are itrational, advertising creates the framework in which people make choices and changes how they take decisions. This is not always a bad thing, nor is it exclusively used by companies for the sake of improving sales. For example, Thaler and Sunstein mention the ad campaign that promoted respect for the environment by using athletes and the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas”. This proved to be a particularly effective advertising campaign since the demographic it was targeting was young men.
This blurs the lines between advertising and propaganda. There is no real way to distinguish between what is meant to advertise in the libertarian sense of promoting awareness and what is meant to propagandize to manipulate choices. However, this distinction should be meaningless when there is no state involvement. Propaganda is bad not because it tries to influence choices, but because the state uses it to convince people to make poor choices and alter their worldview in favor of the state and against their own interests. However, if propaganda was used to promote better decisions and better living, it could prove to be a great asset in any libertarian society. Of course, it is dangerous to let this be used by voluntary governments, as propaganda can quickly blur the line between voluntary and involuntary, but private organizations could use it to great effect.
For example, if a person sought to encourage marriage stability and lessen divorce through propaganda, he could design a very effective campaign. Since the people with the least stable marriages tend to be those who have had many pre-marital partners and are between four to eight years into their marriage, a clever propagandizer could craft a piece that played off the notion that one is not likely to find a more stable marriage and that the best days for dating are long gone for the person who is contemplating divorce. This could be combined with the sentiment that it is possible to salvage a marriage that might seem dysfunctional. This could read something like “Trying something new does not have to be a risk” and could be combined with promotion of marriage counseling and pictures of happy couples. If this sentiment manages to become a part of the zeitgeist, it will prevent at least some divorces.
Similar propaganda can be used to help people make generally better decisions. However, the hard part is deciding what counts as a better decision. The only metric to judge this by is by what people themselves think is best for them, and most people tend to want to avoid divorce and preserve their marriages. This is, of course, unless one side has caused a significant amount of hardship to the other within the relationship, in which case salvaging it might be an immense error. But most divorces are not the results of abusive relationships.
Companies benefit by their employees being healthy and happy, as depressed and unhealthy people do not tend to perform well. A way to promote a healthy lifestyle would be to make healthful food the most convenient and available option. For example, a company could give away free lunches to their employees, which could pay for themselves by increasing work quality if they have enough of a long-term health impact. It would take a genius meal planner to work out how this would be possible, but thankfully many very intelligent people do work in the field of nutrition. Another policy could be to install a public gym in the workplace and give employees an additional paid break for the use of the gym. This gives people an incentive for physical activity. Furthermore, if this break was scheduled later in the day, it could also sustain productivity for people who would otherwise be mentally exhausted, as exercise has been proven to promote mental activity. Thus, by using these incentives that do not force employees to do anything, employers can maximize their profits by promoting a better lifestyle among their employees.
Next, let us turn to the beloved libertarian solution for nearly everything: the insurance company. When an insurance company insures people, it takes some of the risks inherent in life upon itself, and people with more risky lifestyles have to pay more for insurance if the company is aware of this. But this is not a sufficiently salient input to make people re-consider their lifestyles, as saving on insurance money is an abstract concept for most people. However, insurance companies could offer incentives if people stopped engaging in risky behaviors. For example, a person could be presented with a notice that told them how much insurance money they would save over their lifetime by quitting smoking. Another similar effect could be insurance companies giving their customers rebates if they agree to use them to visit doctors for regular check-ups. Both of these behaviors directly benefit the consumer and minimize the risks for insurance companies. These are free market methods of improving people’s decisions and creating a better society.
Let us now consider libertarian governance. The first important thing to mention is that statist propaganda could never be acceptable in a libertarian social order. However, what could be acceptable are ad campaigns that help promote the values of a libertarian society. For example, unlike the massive failures of current anti-drug campaigns, libertarian governments could simply play into the actually detrimental parts of drug use. Instead of giving teenagers a message of “drugs are not cool”, they could be presented with the actual tragedies involved with excessive drug use without false information. This would not serve to promote needless fear, as imaginary threats will eventually be met with pushback. Rather, it would provide information to give vivid imagery to the people who could potentially do drugs. In a more reactionary social order, this could even involve showcasing pictures of people who died from drug overdose alongside pictures of them before their drug habit to put real context behind what drug abuse entails.
The market government, which is primarily a provider of managerial services, could easily discriminate based on what actions people have taken to manage their own property. For example, if the government subsidized police protection for the poor, it could require that the police companies that receive subsidy train any people who want to protect themselves, and also give trained individuals rebates on their fees to the government for the sake of buying a cheap firearm. Thus, a voluntary government could promote trained and responsible gun ownership among the people who most need to protect themselves, ultimately not costing anyone anything due to the decreased need for police subsidies. Although this model is imperfect, as we are dealing with a managerial entity that cannot function like any other market entity, it is still better than having nothing at all. This is the entire purpose for market government; not to create a perfect system, but rather to remove the inherent issues with the state while preserving the central management of land areas for the benefit of the residents.
Finally, it is also important for the government to promote personal improvement in its communities, as better communities lead to a better quality of life, which would improve the value of the governance service. A way to do this would be to collectively fund parks designed for families, community events that promote socialization, and various civic centers that provide a baseline for communal health. This would, again, pay for itself as more people want to live in a community with these services, and the voluntary government would not need to use involuntary means to promote the attendance of any of these facilities. Of course, this would make the subscription to this government cost more, but it would be more than worthwhile because the cumulative effects of an improved lifestyle improve the quality of the entire community.