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Mark D. White, Manipulation of Choice, Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism

Christophe Salvat
p. 533-537
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Mark D. White, Manipulation of Choice, Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 208 pages, ISBN 978-113728776-2.

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Crédits : Palgrave Macmillan

1The book is divided into seven chapters, four of which are entirely devoted to Sunstein and Thaler’s libertarian paternalism. The first two chapters deal with economics and behavioral economics in general. In chapter one, White condemns ‘traditional’ economic models of choice, which are exclusively and mistakenly relying on preference satisfaction. According to him, individuals do not act just out of preference but are guided by a number of values and principles that economists are unable or unwilling to take in consideration. What economists do not see is that “choices cannot be reduced to preferences, well-being, or any simple explanation based on a single reason or motivation” (p.14). The emergence and development of behavioral economics (chapter 2) could be interpreted as an attempt to improve the traditional economic model, and it does to some extent by increasing the level of realism of its hypotheses. But, for White, by adopting the same basic model of preference satisfaction, behavioral economists fall into the same trap as their predecessors and colleagues. And when traditional economists completely ignore the role of willpower (p.17), their behavioral colleagues “can’t account for this spontaneous exertion to willpower by which we simply decide to bring our actions back into line with our best judgment.” (p.40). In chapter 3, the author explains how libertarian paternalism is actually the result of the extension of behavioral economics to law and political studies (something he strongly resents). Chapters 4, 5 and 6 respectively argue that libertarian paternalism is a) ineffective, b) unethical, and c) counterproductive. Nudges are, firstly, ineffective because nobody better than the agents themselves know where their interests lie, and that economists and policy makers “are nudging people towards decisions to advance interest that were chosen for them, compounding the disrespect of ignoring people’s true interests” (p.70). They are, secondly, unethical because they trick people into doing things they do not want to. In that respect, for White, manipulation is worse than bans, taxes or subsidies: “These are no less paternalistic or coercive, but they have a clear advantage: they are out in the open for all to see” (p.96). Nudges are, lastly, counterproductive because they reinforce people’s cognitive biases instead of trying to correct them (chapter 6). Indeed, “by correcting people’s mistakes before they can make them, nudges block the beneficial aspect of bad decisions: that we learn from them.” (p.119). The last chapter suggests ways of dealing with people’s cognitive bias such as ‘Provide Information Neutrally’, ‘Helping People Overcome Their Cognitive Biases and Heuristics’ or ‘Holding People Accountable and Responsible for Their Choices’. White concludes his book by stating that “there are many more pressing problems in the world than what we choose to eat for dessert or how we choose to spend or invest our money. Economists and policy makers should focus on the big issues, and leave our lives to us. If they really want to help people – and I trust they do – that’s the best way to do it.” (p.150).

2As is suggested by the title of the book, White strongly disapproves of paternalism, or more specifically of libertarian paternalism, which he considers to be the unfortunate product of the normative drift of behavioral economics. This is not very original. Gilles Saint-Paul defended a similar position in The Tyranny of Utility. Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism (Saint-Paul, 2011). But, unlike White, Saint-Paul developed a consistent – and academically grounded – argument. White’s book looks more like a general-public pamphlet against economics and paternalism. He quotes dozens of authors to support his thesis, from Kant to Posner or Buchanan, without questioning the overall consistency of his argument. As for economists, their work is simply ridiculed. There is no point entering into a detailed account of White’s inaccurate or oversimplified views against economics. I propose, instead, to focus on White’s main specificity, i.e. his alleged Kantian approach.

3In line with his previous works on Kantian economics (White, 2011), White embraces Kantian philosophy as the main theoretical inspiration of his anti-paternalism. The choice of Kant is indeed interesting. Kant, like Rousseau before him, believed that personal autonomy lies in the ability people have to resist external (yet internalized) pressure to achieve their real will (rather than their socially induced desires). This explains the importance given by White to principles and willpower in the first chapter (something we only discover in the last chapter). This also explains why the author is less critical of traditional forms of paternalism such as taxes or bans, which are supposedly more transparent than nudges. And it is true that, for Kant, the law can be instrumental to the satisfaction of people’s will, and therefore to their autonomy. So why couldn’t nudges be also part of this process? Why couldn’t nudges also help people to fight against external pressure (such as framing effects in a cafeteria) so that they act according to their will (like eating healthily or losing weight)? This is an important question. There may be reasons for which coercive rules are deemed better than non-coercive ones, such as the fact nudges are deceitful (Bovens, 2009), but, curiously enough, White argues that deceit is immoral because it is paternalistic (deceiving for profit is, for him, totally acceptable). Deceit, then, cannot be a reason to dismiss nudges (the argument would, otherwise, be circular). The main problem, however, lies elsewhere. White, up to the last chapter, repeatedly states that it is wrong to interfere with people’s choices because individuals know better what is good for them, and that “there is literally no way to know a person’s ‘true’ preferences” (p.75). This may be Hayekian, but this is certainly not Kantian. Wills, for Kant, are rational. And since rationality is universal, everyone – including policy makers – can gain access to it.

4My second qualm with White’s Kantianism relates to the way he uses emotions and empathy (rather than reason) to make his point. The examples he gives, to start with, are emotionally biased. Here’s a typical case:

Every Sunday morning, Patrick, a heavyset man in his early 50s, takes a stroll to the local bakery and enjoys a muffin and coffee while he reads his newspaper. If a behavioral economist happened to walk into the same bakery on a Sunday morning and saw Patrick, he or she may think, ‘that man shouldn’t be eating a muffin – he should have chosen the fruit cup instead’. To be fair, that’s not an uncommon reaction to seeing a person do something that seems harmful to himself or herself. I’m sure many of us, when we see people eating fast food, getting drunk, or smoking, think to ourselves, ‘they really shouldn’t do that; it’s not good for them’. At best, this attitude shows concern for your fellow human beings, at worst, it’s presumptuous ridicule, even if it goes unspoken.

But the behavioral economist would likely go one step farther, asking, ‘but why is he eating that muffin? He must be weak-willed, or perhaps he succumbed to crafty marketing or presentation on the part of the bakery or the food industry. Maybe he was confused about the nutritional content of the muffin compared to the fruit cup.’ (Of course, the behavioral economist chose the fruit cup.) The coup de grace, of course, is the final sentiment: ‘If only there were some way to help him make better choices in the future.’

What the behavioral economists doesn’t know (nor do we) is why Patrick is eating that muffin on a Sunday morning. When Patrick was a young boy, his grandfather would take him to that same bakery every Sunday morning and buy two muffins, one for each of them. Patrick would savor his treat while his grandfather told him stories of his experiences in World War II, how he met Patrick’s grandmother (who passed when Patrick was eight), and what Patrick’s father was like as a young boy. Patrick lost touch with his grandfather after he left for college, and was able to share a muffin with him just one last time, at that very bakery, before his grandfather died three years ago. So every Sunday since, he goes to that bakery, buys a muffin, and thinks about those mornings with his grandfather. (pp.62-63).

5By nudging him into not buying muffins on Sunday mornings, behavioral economists and policy makers ruin what remains of his happy memories with his grandad. To be as melodramatic as White is, they kill him a second time. However moving this story is, it is grossly misleading. If Patrick really wants to buy muffins, no nudges can prevent him from doing so. Nudges are designed to help those who don’t really want muffins but can’t resist buying them when looking at the bakery’s window.

6There is also something un-Kantian in the way White uses humor to gain sympathy from his readers. Here are some examples: « I ate a donut this morning. Mmmm – it was good (thanks for asking). » (p.ix) ; « Chris and Pat have found themselves in a need of a new car. […] At the end of the day, they hope to have settled on a car and a price with a dealer. (Wish them luck!)” (p.2); “Let’s say Fred walks by a bakery. One thing you should know about Fred is that he loves his cherry Danish. But Fred also knows he shouldn’t have cherry Danish because Fred’s doctor told him he has to lose weight, blah blah blah. His judgment tells him he should just walk on by the bakery, but the temptation threatens to draw him in. (Come on, people – it’s cherry danish).” (p.18); “Forget Fred and the cherry danish – well, at least forget Fred – and substitute your own personal struggle with self-control and temptation. Maybe you’re in recovery but find yourself at a party with alcohol. Or you gave up smoking a week ago but pass through a group of smokers lighting up outside their office building. Or you’re supposed to be finishing an important project for work, but instead you’re reading this book. (Thank you!)” (pp.18-19); “Judy knows she should finish grading exams, but grading exams… well, it sucks. (I’m sorry, but it does. Hug a teacher today.)” (p.40) etc…. I first thought it odd because it is unusual in the academic world, but not necessarily inappropriate. But the further I read, the more I became aware of being manipulated. Humor tends to relax you and to lessen your critical sense. It can also rally people to some argument or, more often than not, to some absence of argument. Consider the next passage about the economists’ complete ignorance of willpower: “If Janet determines that a larger can of baked beans is a better deal than the small can, or if spending three hours studying for an exam is the best use of her time, or if running ten miles every morning will be the optimal way to lose weight then of course she will buy the large can of baked beans, spend three hours studying … and go running every morning. Without fail. Every morning. Because that’s what she decided to do. Just like all of us who decide to give up smoking, eat less fast food, procrastinate less, and stop watching reality TV. We all act according to what we decide is best. Right?” (p.17). White, who is manifestly unaware of Bénabou and Tirole’s works on willpower (Bénabou and Tirole, 2004), prefers lampooning economists rather than engaging in a critical assessment of their work. This does not fool economists or better informed people but it might sway students, for whom this book seems to have been written. White treats his readers as first-year students, who can be easily manipulated or gained by a joke. For a self-proclaimed Kantian anti-paternalist, this is somewhat ironical.

7But, jokes apart, is this book really an anti-paternalism manifesto? We have seen above that the Kantian founding principles he has adopted could actually be used to legitimate nudges under certain conditions (transparency being one of them). We have also seen that White is not opposed to nudges when they are undertaken by private individuals or companies since profit-making is common knowledge in capitalist countries. Yet, he also acknowledges the work of the Public Choice School, making policy-makers self-interested agents! Last, but not least, White defends a curious idea of parental duty and, consequently, paternalism: “If libertarian paternalists want to see how paternalism should be done, look to those who deserve the name: parents. No responsible parent prevents his or her child from making mistakes. As much as it hurts, parents know that they have to let their kids make mistakes because that’s the best way to learn.” (p.125). It is doubly questionable, first because it is completely unsupported (and highly arguable) and second because it is seemingly incompatible with his general thesis. If real paternalism consists of doing nothing, that should make all libertarian thinkers (except Sunstein and Thaler) supporters of paternalism… including himself!

8To conclude White’s book does not bring any novelty to a much debated issue. It does not give a good review of what has been written before, despite the number of books or articles quoted. On the contrary, the reader leaves the book more confused than enlightened, and with the uncomfortable feeling he or she has been fudged.

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Bénabou, Roland and Jean Tirole. 2004. Willpower and Personal Rules. Journal of Political Economy, 112: 848-886.

Bovens, Luc. 2009. The Ethics of Nudge. In Till Grüne-Yanoff and Sven Ove Hansson (eds), Preference Change. Approaches from Philosophy, Economics and Psychology. Netherlands: Springer, 207-19.

Saint-Paul, Gilles. 2011. The Tyranny of Utility. Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

White, M. 2011. Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Christophe Salvat, « Mark D. White, Manipulation of Choice, Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism »Œconomia, 5-4 | 2015, 533-537.

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Christophe Salvat, « Mark D. White, Manipulation of Choice, Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism »Œconomia [En ligne], 5-4 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 05 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Christophe Salvat

CNRS, Triangle UMR5206, ENS de Lyon,

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