Meet Your 'Choice Architect'

I had the privilege of briefly speaking with a prominent economist at a recent event I attended.  After hearing all of the uplifting news about the economic peril we are in, I had one burning question: Why is it that what I assume to be intelligent people (Obama, Geithner, Bernanke, Reid, et al.) are hurling us down this obviously unsustainable and destructive path -- to what end would they do so?  His answer: "Power."  Let that sink in a moment.

While I shouldn't have been surprised by that answer, I was.  So much so, that I responded, "Really?"  Not because I couldn't believe it, but because it seemed like such a colossal waste.  I realize that human nature has a dark side, and human history is replete with characters that inarguably demonstrate the obviousness of it.  But I had hoped that the freedom, prosperity, and opportunity so many have experienced and have access to here in the United States, versus any other nation that currently is or has been on the face of the planet, might inspire those in positions of power to curb their otherwise blind ambitions.  I guess I was wrong. 

I find it almost inconceivable that there are those who desire to control whether I choose to have a Big Mac© or an apple for lunch by "nudging" me in the "right" direction -- for my own good of course.  It is actually quite brilliant, in a devious sort of way.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein released Nudge in 2008.  Sunstein, a law professor from Harvard, is hailed as having "the quintessential University of Chicago habit of mind."  Which translates as being "social scientists at heart, contrarian but empirical, following evidence to logical extremes. They are centrally interested not in what it is like to be an individual within society but in how society washes over individuals, making and remaking them." [Emphasis mine.]

This "remaking" is accomplished through what they term, "choice architecture," defined as:

Decision makers do not make choices in a vacuum. They make them in an environment where many features, noticed and unnoticed, can influence their decisions. The person who creates that environment is, in our terminology, a choice architect. The goal of Nudge is to show how choice architecture can be used to help nudge people to make better choices (as judged by themselves) without forcing certain outcomes upon anyone, a philosophy we call libertarian paternalism. The tools highlighted are: defaults, expecting error, understanding mappings, giving feedback, structuring complex choices, and creating incentives.  [Emphasis mine.]

How nice.  It sort of reminds me of how cattle appear to have a "choice" regarding which will go first as they are politely nudged down the chute toward the slaughterhouse.  But wait -- that's not all.  Many of you may not know that Sunstein has been testing his academic theories regarding "choice architecture" on subjects who may be completely unaware of their involvement.  You see, Sunstein is our unelected and unaccountable Regulatory Czar. 

Since being appointed by the Choice Architect in Chief in 2009, Sunstein has been busy churning out regulations that have been shaping our "choices" with the full weight of the federal government behind him.  Comforting, isn't it?  Here is another comforting tidbit.  In 2008, Sunstein stated the following:

  • "The nanny state ... in a way is underrated, so long as there aren't mandates."
  • "We [Sunstein and Thaler] think that there's a little Homer Simpson in all of us; that sometimes we have self-control problems; sometimes we're impulsive; and that in these circumstances, both private and public institutions, without coercing, can make our lives a lot better."
  • "Once we know that people are human and there's some Homer Simpson in them, then there's a lot that can be done to manipulate them." [Emphasis mine.]

Had Joseph Goebbels taught a propaganda course at Harvard with Sunstein in attendance, no teacher would have been prouder of his protégé.  Adapting and refining the fine art of manipulation through the construction of mechanisms that give the false appearance of freedom of choice while lacking the substance of it.  It just goes to show you that human beings can morph even the most monstrous of techniques into palatable bite-sized morsels for consumption by many in what has become our willingly complicit, complacent, and dumbed-down society.  

There was a time when I hoped that what I viewed as merely a misguided political and philosophical ideology held by our president and those who are allied with him, along with the obvious and disastrous outcomes of their policies, would awaken -- not only those in the Tea Party movement, but a majority of the American people -- from their slumber.  Unfortunately that quaint notion of a mere political disagreement is growing into something much more ominous and foreboding -- the complete and utter destruction of the American way of life which I have grown to love and others look toward as a beacon of hope in a tumultuous world. 

We cannot continue on the path we are on.  We cannot sustain the gargantuan debt we have accumulated that increases daily at an unfathomable rate.  We cannot say "not mine" when it comes to making tough choices regarding entitlements -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- and government worker benefits that contained the seeds of their destruction from their inception.  We cannot be nudged into faux choices directed from on high by elites who view citizens as the unwashed masses subject to their social experiments. 

It is the challenge of this generation, not to found a nation, fight a civil war, destroy an evil axis, or end Communism, but to re-found and reinvigorate the principles of free minds and free markets in a free society or perish.  Really. 

Big Mac© is a registered trademark of McDonald's.

Julie Schmidt is a conservative commentator on political and social issues.  She holds an MBA in finance and Baccalaureate in communications technology.