It’s in Your Own Best Interest

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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Children buying toy cars, Paris, 1967; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Public, political, and academic opinion about the role of government has changed considerably since the early 1980s. There is now a widespread presumption that private, free-market solutions are the appropriate way to address not just economic but also social and political issues. In the spirit of our free-market era, Simpler: The Future of Government outlines strategies that regulate economic behavior but also promote individual welfare by preserving freedom of choice rather than by mandates, prohibitions, subsidies, and other incentives.

Cass Sunstein is a leading legal and political theorist, recognized for his many works in constitutional jurisprudence and regulatory theory. In recent years, he has been trying to combine his long-standing commitment to progressive liberal positions with advocacy of free-market liberalism. Lately, and most notably in his best-selling book of 2008, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (coauthored with the economist Richard Thaler), Sunstein has sought inspiration from the growing field of behavioral economics.

Simpler is a follow-up to Nudge. Sunstein draws from his experiences as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) from 2009 to 2012. OIRA, a division of the Office of Management and Budget, oversees and critically assesses federal regulations, fulfilling a 1981 mandate from then President Reagan to ensure that “regulatory action shall not be undertaken unless the potential benefits to society for the regulation outweigh the potential costs to society.”

Sunstein contends that “the future of government” largely lies in policies that preserve freedom of choice. Such policies, which he and Thaler dubbed “nudges,” would encourage people to make decisions that benefit rather than harm them. Nudges attempt to influence people’s choices by altering the circumstances of choice to bring about a desired result. “To count as a mere nudge,” Sunstein writes, “the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level [in a school cafeteria, for example] counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.” Advertisers and salespersons are professional nudgers. They appeal to our feelings and influence our beliefs and judgments so that we choose in ways that benefit them. Government nudges, by contrast, are designed to influence individuals to choose in ways that promote their own health, safety, and welfare.

Sunstein calls government nudges “libertarian paternalism.” Government, he says, should use its regulatory powers to simplify the disclosure of relevant information and present choices in ways that encourage individuals to freely choose alternatives that benefit rather than harm them. The nudges Sunstein discusses in Simpler fall into four broad categories. The first includes simple disclosures—the number of calories in soft drinks, for example. Here Sunstein emphasizes the need for simplifying health, safety, and financial information on products. His main examples, aside from clearer summaries of nutrition facts, include simplified labels about the fuel economy of cars and energy labels on appliances, and clear information about total fees, penalties, and interest on mortgages …

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