HLS Library Book Talk | Cass Sunstein, “On Freedom”


JOCELYN KENNEDY: Good
afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you my
name’s Jocelyn Kennedy. I’m the Executive Director of
the Harvard Law School Library. Welcome to our Book Talk. I’d like to thank the Dean’s
Office for providing lunch and also let you know that
today’s talk is being recorded. It’ll appear on the Law
School’s YouTube channel next week, roughly. And we record, also, the
question and answer period. So it’s my great
pleasure to introduce Cass Sunstein, the Robert
Walmsley University Professor here at
Harvard and Founder and Director of the program
on behavioral economics and public policy. He’s published numerous
articles and books, including Risk and Reason– Why Societies Need
Dissent, Laws of Fear– Beyond the Precautionary
Principle, Nudge– Improving Decisions About
Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and Conspiracy Theories
and Other Dangerous Ideas. In 2018, he was awarded
the Holberg Prize, which is awarded
annually to a scholar for outstanding
contribution to research in the arts and humanities,
social science, law, or theology. His book on freedom, which he’s
here to share with us today, is based on his
Holberg lecture, which was delivered in June 2018. So I turn it over to you. [APPLAUSE] CASS SUNSTEIN: OK,
so I’ll tell you something about what
you’re about to hear. This is the closest
thing to a sermon that I will ever deliver. So usually, a law
professor, I think, to give you some empirical
or analytic claims, which have maybe slides or
conclusion argument, and this is a little bit
that, but a little bit sermon. And I’ll tell you the origins. When I got this prize– which involves not just law,
but philosophy and literature, theology, and others– I thought I didn’t want
to do what is often done in prize talks,
which is to say, I wrote this paper 20
years ago, and here’s why. And thank you for liking it. I thought I’d try
to do something that would give me a little more
self-respect, maybe, than that. And what flashed into my mind
was a scene in the Johnny Cash movie Walk The Line,
where Johnny Cash goes to Sam Phillips, who
discovered Elvis Presley, and sings in front
of Sam Phillips some song about some cliche
about how he feels God within, something like that. And Sam Phillips says, go home. And Johnny Cash says, what? You didn’t let us
finish the song. And Sam Phillips says, go home. You don’t have a
career in music. And Johnny Cash says, what
are you talking about? And Sam Phillips says, well,
let me put it to you this way. If you had one
song that you would sing that reflected your
place on Earth, your time, and what you cared about
and what mattered to you, would you sing
the song you sang? The song you just sang
I’ve heard 1,000 times. Everyone sings that song. Can you sing a song that
really says something that if you were in a gutter
in a ditch and telling God what your life was like, dying,
what would you sing? And Johnny Cash
says, do you have anything against the Air Force? And Sam Phillips says, no. And Johnny Cash
says, well, I do. And then he sings one of his
great prison blues songs, which is real and comes from
a place that he cares about. So this isn’t within a zillion
miles as good as a prison blues song by Johnny Cash. But if there was one song
that I was going to sing, if I was asked, this
would be pretty close. Let’s begin with two
epigraphs, shall we? The first, you’ve
probably heard. “So when the woman saw that
the tree was good for food and that it was a
delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be
desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” You know what this is from? I hope you do. “And she also gave some to
her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of
both were opened, and they knew that
they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves
together and made loin claws for themselves.” That’s from the book of Genesis. The second epigraph is from
a novel called Possession by AS Byatt, and it’s
after another kind of faithful– fateful choice. Faithful in its way,
unfaithful in another way. And it did involve a romance. “In the morning, the whole
world had a strange new smell. It was the smell
of the aftermath– a green smell. The smell of shredded
leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood
and splashed sap. A tart smell which
bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of
death and destruction, and it smelled fresh
and lively and hopeful.” Byatt, in this
passage, is speaking of a free choice
and a kind of fall, and her tale really overlaps
with that of Genesis. But Byatt’s account
is more upbeat, yes? It smelled fresh and
lively and hopeful. Let’s be clear–
every human being is blessed to
experience that smell. So my questions here are when
people’s free choices will make their lives go better. The liberal political tradition
has a pretty simple answer to that question. Yes, they will, usually. Novelists, psychologists,
theologians, and artists tend to disagree. And they’re right to
say that the tradition of liberal politics is too
simple on this account. And, parenthetically,
let me note that there’s a big debate
in political theory and law and philosophy,
moral philosophy, between advocates of
negative freedom– stay away government– and
advocates of positive freedom– help me enjoy the
preconditions of freedom. I hope it will be clear
that this is meant as– what’s the right word– an effort to go beyond
that tired debate and to say something that has
a little more edginess, maybe, than that old one. What I want to do is
put a bright spotlight on a single problem, and that’s
the problem of navigability. And to suggest that we lawyers,
journalists, ordinary citizens, economists, and
psychologists have paid much too little attention
to the problem of navigability. If you can’t navigate your
life, you’re less free. All over the world, people
who are facing hardship, mental illness, poverty,
chronic pain, inequality are often unable to
solve one problem– the problem of navigability. They need help. Those who are interested in
freedom, 21st century style, should be focusing, I suggest,
on the problem of navigability. OK, to get a purchase on that,
I have to say a little bit about nudges and nudging. Did you think you were going to
get away without words on that? In daily life, a GPS device
is an example of a nudge. It respects freedom of choice. You can ignore it, if you
like, but it helps you to get where you want to go. Other policies, by contrast,
are mandates and bans. They aren’t like a GPS device. They may be economic
incentives, like fees or taxes. They play important roles,
but they are not nudges. They eliminate or severely
skew freedom of choice. Nudges, by contrast, impose
no burdens of a material kind and give no material
benefits to anyone. They are economically neutral. With respect to the world’s
most serious problems, the use of nudges remains
in its very early days, just out of infancy. We’re going to see
a ton in the future, and the impact isn’t
going to be little. Here’s a story told
by the novelist David Foster
Wallace, who started a graduation speech this way. There are these two young
fish swimming along, and they happened
to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The fish, the older one, nods
at them and says, morning, boys. How’s the water? And the two young
fish swim on for a bit and then, eventually, one of
them looks over at the other and goes, what
the hell is water? Wallace is telling a tale
about choice architecture, the background against
which human and fish choices are made. Choice architecture is
inevitable, whether or not we see it, and it influences us. Weather is itself a form
of choice architecture, because it influences
what people decide. On snowy days, like
maybe tomorrow, people are especially
likely to buy cars with four wheel drive, which
they return to the market unusually quickly. People can’t live without
some kind of weather, and nature nudges. The law is going to nudge
us, even if it allows us to have a lot of flexibility. I think the depth of Wallace’s
little tale is its indication. The choice architecture
is inevitable, even if we don’t
see it, even if we take it as part of
life’s furniture, even if it is nameless. We can’t wish it away. Any store, real or online,
has to have a design. Some products we see
first, others last. Television stations are
assigned different numbers, and astonishingly, the
number matters, even when the costs of
switching are really low. People choose stations
with lower numbers. Any website has a
design which will affect what and whether people choose. Nudges, to be worth
embracing, are typically designed to increase
the likelihood that people’s free choices are
going to improve their welfare. Thaler, my co-author, and I
urge that the goal of nudging is to make choosers better
off, as judged by themselves. We didn’t put a spotlight on
the problem of navigability. I think that’s the
main gap in our book, and I’m trying to do that
a bit here and connect it to larger themes. Social planners might have
their own ideas about what would make choosers better off. But the lodestar here in
this room, in these remarks, is people’s own judgments. To be a little more specific,
the lodestar is welfare, and people’s own judgments are
a reasonable, though imperfect, way to test the
question whether nudges are increasing their welfare. This claim goes directly back to
John Stuart Mill, who argued– too simply, but
it’s a good start– that individuals are
in a unique position to know what will
improve their welfare and that outsiders
are going to blunder. Mill says, and it’s
nice to think– I think of Genesis
in this context, because it’s a
pleasing complication. Mill insists that the individual
is the person most interested in his own well-being. And the ordinary
man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably
surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else. “When society seeks to overrule
the individual’s judgment,” Mills says, “it does so on the
basis of general presumptions, and these may be
altogether wrong. And even if they
are right, are as likely as not to be misapplied
to individual cases.” OK, take this as, in a nutshell,
the welfarist case for freedom of choice, which is epistemic. It stresses how
everyone in this room has more clarity about
what will produce your welfare in the next
week or month or year than anybody else on the planet. That’s Mill’s
epistemic argument. Mill concludes
that if the goal is to ensure that
people’s lives go well, the best solution is
for public officials to allow people to
find their own path. OK, here’s an objection. People need a GPS device. Many forms of
choice architecture, if they are freedom
friendly, make it easier for people to get to
their preferred destination, and they don’t know how. Life can be tough to navigate,
and helpful choice architecture is a crucial way of
promoting simpler navigation. For poor people and many
people in poor nations, this is a horrifying problem. I was recently in
Argentina, and in domains that range from road safety
to education to education, the problem of navigability
belongs in very bright lights. There’s an economist at MIT
named Esther Duflo who has a fantastic book called Poor
Economics that’s written as an economics book that’s
well-written would be– that is, kind of dry and clear. Economics book, A-plus. Kind of dry and clear. But in oral remarks,
at one point, she got more animated discussing
a central thesis of her book. “We tend to be patronizing
about the poor in a very specific sense, which is
that we tend to think, why don’t they take more
responsibility for their lives? What we are forgetting is
that the richer you are, the less responsibility you
need to take for your own life, because everything is
taken care for you. And the poorer you
are, the more you have to be responsible for
everything about your life. Stop berating people for
not being responsible, and start, instead,
to think of ways of providing the poor with the
luxury the rest of us have, which is a lot of
decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we’re
on the right track. For most of the poor,
if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.” In my terms, here,
the problem is that they have to
find the right track, to identify the right doctor,
to find the right job, to get help and taking
care of their kids. Good cities are
easily navigated. So are good airports. So are good hotels. So are good websites. We might think of efforts
to increase navigability as a form of means paternalism. A GPS has no quarrel with your
judgment about your preferred destination. It respects that. But it helps you to get
where you want to go. Many interventions
having nothing to do with literal
navigation can be understood in similar terms. I confess,
parenthetically, that part of the emotional wellspring
for these remarks is international travels,
where to navigate a shower is really, really hard, meaning
to know how to turn it on so it is hot and has the right– OK, from the expressions
on your faces, I’m seeing that I was right to
take the advice of one reviewer and essentially to eliminate
that from the book. It’s too crazy an example. OK, a great deal of
attention in recent years has been focused on the idea
of subjective well-being, otherwise known as happiness. In many nations, unhappiness
is a product of mental illness, anxiety, and depression. In others, it’s a
product of unemployment. Increases in
navigability can ensure that those who suffer from
mental illness get help. Increases in navigability
help people find jobs. With those approaches,
freedom is hardly compromised. It’s increased,
and so is welfare. Now, the suggestion is–
this is Mill’s blind spot. Mill didn’t see
this as a problem. And the suggestion is that
increases in navigability are compatible with the
kind of moral foundations of his commitment
to freedom, but they fill in a gap that leads
to unfreedom for those who have freedom of choice. Consider some stylized examples. Luke, let’s call him,
has heart disease. He needs to take
various medication. He wants to do that,
but he’s forgetful. His doctor is now sending
him text messages. As a result, he takes
his medications, and his life expectancy
is a lot higher. He’s glad he’s
receiving the messages. Meredith has a weight problem. She’s aware of
that fact, but she doesn’t want to stop
eating the food she enjoys. After a new law,
restaurants in her city– let’s call it Los Angeles– have clear calorie
labels telling her of the caloric content
of various options. She’s choosing low
calorie offerings more, and she’s losing weight. She’s really glad to see
those calorie labels. OK, in these cases, the
relevant intervention increases navigability, and
people’s choices are being improved by their own lights. If we understand the “as
judged by themselves” criterion by reference to
people’s own judgments, the criterion is met. I have a number for you right
now, and it’s 9.78 billion. That number, 9.78
billion, is the number of hours in paperwork burdens
the American government puts on the American people. Now, I have to have a footnote,
because every talk needs a footnote. That’s part of our contracts. And it says, first, the annual
report of the US management– Office of Management and
Budget, the annual report, has that number in it,
and it’s from 2016. But the footnote adds it
hasn’t been updated since, but there’s a daily count
that the government includes. It’s somewhat less official. It’s up to 11.3 billion now. Now, we can think of those
billions of hours in paperwork imposition as sludge,
where sludge is often a terrible obstacle
to navigability. It makes it hard for
people to get to vote; for people to get the Earned
Income Tax Credit, which is probably the most
successful anti-poverty program in the United States; for people
to get occupational licenses; for people to get
health care; for people to get educational
benefits for their kid; for people to get help in
multiple public and private domains. There ought to be
sludge audits undertaken by every department of the
federal and state governments that impose significant
amounts of sludge with the goal of sludge
audits decreasing obstacles to navigability. OK, now I’m going
to shift gears a bit to talk about self-control. Economists and psychologists
speak of unrealistic optimism and present bias, which
injure people’s capacity to help their future self. Psychologists also
speak of system one, the automatic intuitive
system of the human mind, and system two, the more
deliberative, reflective system. A little story– I have a 9-year-old boy
named Declan who loves toys. When we pass a toy
store, he wants to stop. One day, I told him, as
any good father would, what I’ve just told you about
the difference between the two systems. And I explained to him that
while his system one wants toys, his system two is well
aware that he has plenty and there’s no need for more. For a few weeks, he
understood the point, and it helped a little bit. But after a month,
he asked me, Daddy, do I even have a system two? My little daughter, by the
way, who is six years old, recently, within
the last six weeks, erupted at the dinner table– apropos of I don’t know what– system one is crazy. Where did she get that? OK, self-control problems
raise serious challenges. One question is whether people
who indulge themselves today or this month suffer from a
self-control problem or instead have a pretty good mantra– enjoy life now. This is not a rehearsal. Another question is
whether purported solutions to self-control problems will
make the situation better rather than worse. Some cures are worse
than the disease. Consider for a
moment, if you would, these haunting, ambivalent words
from the heroine of the novel Possession, with
which I started, Charlotte LaMotte, who writes to
her dying lover, with whom she had an illicit affair. His name is Randolph Ash. And here’s the quote– “I would rather
have lived alone, if you would have the truth. But since that might not be
and is granted to almost none, I thank God for you. If there must be a dragon, I
thank God that he was you.” Readers of Genesis
have long pondered whether the choices of
Adam and Eve in the garden reflected a fatal inability
to resist temptation– the conventional and most
simple and least interesting view, I think– or something very different,
such as an exercise of God-given autonomy or an
honorable God-given desire for knowledge and, in
that sense, freedom. Was the serpent only or
altogether a villain? Was he a servant of God? Was he a villain at all? The conventional view has
triumphed in most circles, and let’s just say
it’s probably right. But the appeal of the
alternative view accounts for the enduring power of
the tale of Adam and Eve, doesn’t that? If the simpler view were clearly
right, it would be a cartoon. Notwithstanding these debates
and LaMotte’s ambivalence about her illicit relationship,
there’s no question that many people agree,
before and after the fact, that interventions can help them
overcome self-control problems, even if they preserve
freedom of choice. Addicts often describe
themselves as enslaved, and they face a problem
of navigability. Often, it’s said an addict
is like a blind person who can’t see the way out of a
place without some assistance. Some simple cases– Ted smoke cigarettes. He wishes that he
hadn’t started. He’s having a hard
time quitting. His government recently
imposed a new requirement, which is that
cigarette packages have to be accompanied
by graphic images showing people with
horrific health problems, including lung cancer. Ted can’t bear to
see those images. He quits, and he’s glad. Joan is a student at
a large university. She drinks a lot. She enjoys it,
but not that much, and she’s worried
that her drinking is impairing her educational
performance and her health. She says that she’d
like to scale back, but for reasons that she
doesn’t entirely understand, she’s found that really hard. Her university recently
embarked on a campaign to reduce drinking,
in which it accurately notes that four out of
five students on campus drink only twice
a month or less. Informed of the social
norm, Joan finally resolves to cut back
on her drinking. She does, and she’s glad. Ted and Joan can
be seen as planners with second order preferences
and doers with first order preferences. They have preferences
about their preferences. The intervention
helps to strengthen the hand of the planner. We should underline
here the fact that, when outsiders
conclude that choosers suffer from a
self-control problem, they ought to be very humble. Choosers might not, in
fact, be adversely affected by present bias. They might adore what they
are doing, even if it harms their future self,
and they might be making a rational,
or rational enough, trade-off between now and later. Consider a fabulous meal, a
wild night off, two weeks off, an apparently
incautious love affair. Life is not a rehearsal,
and planners need to do. The only point is that,
in important cases, self-control
problems are serious and real and devastating. And choosers will
acknowledge that fact. If we asked everyone
in this room to raise his or her hand
if someone in your family has suffered from a
self-control problem leading to serious illness
or death, the number would be very high, predictably. So the stakes aren’t low. Solutions to
self-control problems require GPS devices of a kind. And those devices how people
to go where they want to, at least on reflection. They promote freedom. This is the gap to which I’m
trying to draw attention, that addiction is the
most severe example of a self-control problem. And helping people
to overcome it solves a navigability problem,
thus taking people out of a kind of jail. For choosers who face
self-control problems, the underlying challenge
is distinctive. It’s not, in any
sense, a problem of insufficient knowledge,
and they recognize that fact. But recall LaMotte’s words. Her system one did
not regret what happened between
her and her lover, and sometimes system
one rules the roost. In the hardest
cases, it’s not clear if people have antecedent
preferences at all. We’re speaking
here of preferences that are endogenous in
the sense that they’re endogenous to the relevant
choice architecture. So I’m hoping the cases
of simple navigability and self-control are
relatively easier. Now we’re talking about
cases where preferences are malleable, and
they don’t have the kind of fixity that makes
the GPS analogy sufficient or even correct. It’s going to disintegrate here. Here are some cases. George cares about
the environment. He also cares about money. He currently gets
electricity from coal. He knows that coal
is not exactly good for the environment,
but it’s cheap. And he doesn’t bother to
switch to wind, which would be slightly more expensive. He’s content with the
current situation. Last month, his government
imposed an automatic enrollment rule on electricity providers. People will receive
energy from wind and pay a slight premium
unless they choose to switch. George doesn’t bother to switch. He says that he now
likes the situation of automatic enrollment. He approves of
the policy, and he approves of his own enrollment. Got the case? George is happy either way. We can’t talk about a GPS. Case two, Mary is
automatically enrolled in a bronze health care plan. As the name suggests, it’s less
expensive than silver and gold, but also less comprehensive
in its coverage, and it has a higher deductible. Mary prefers bronze,
the cheaper plan. She has no interest
in switching. In a parallel world– if you don’t know what
I’m talking about, Netflix has a thousand and one
shows about parallel worlds, worlds in which, in one of them,
it’s exactly like this room, but these are blue. That’s not an interesting
parallel world. In another parallel world,
it’s exactly like this, but we’re all speaking
Russian, because the Cold War went the other way. That’s crazy, but a
little more interesting. But back to Mary. In a parallel world, Mary
is automatically enrolled in a gold health care plan– more expensive than silver
and bronze, but also more comprehensive in coverage,
and it has a lower deductible. Mary prefers gold and has
no interest in switching. The case of Mary is identical
to the case of George in the sense that
her preference– and we could speak of values
as well as preferences– is androgynous to the
choice architecture. That’s why we can’t speak
of navigability anymore. We don’t have a
preferred destination with which we can work. A note on parallel worlds. Science fiction writers
like to speak of them, showing that with a little
twist or a small alteration, our lives our
cities, our nations, our entire world might
be very different. Some words from
Possession, the novel, at a very haunting
moment in the novel– “There are things that happen
and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or
written of, though it would be very wrong to say
that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same,
as though such things had never been.” Each of us, in our
own lives, can maybe think of those things. Parallel worlds are
intriguing for many reasons. And the very idea
is, I think, deep, because it highlights the
omnipresence of contingency. One such reason is
that we, you and I, might have been or be quite
happy in multiple worlds, even if we’re pretty happy
or really happy in our own. Here’s the point– for the “as
judged by themselves” standard, that’s a serious problem. It’s going to be indeterminate. People are going to
be happy either way. History is only run once, but
some interventions literally create parallel worlds. In the cases of Mary and
Thomas, they appear to lack at antecedent preference. What they prefer is an
artifact of the default rule. The choice depends on what the
intervention or architecture looks like. People’s preferences
are constructed by them. After being intervened
on, they will be happy and possibly grateful. One reason might be learning. Another reason
might be reduction of cognitive dissonance. People might reduce
dissonance in a way that makes them satisfied
with the new status quo, whatever it is. If so, it’s really hard to see
the “as judged by themselves” criterion as sufficient,
because by hypothesis, people are satisfied only
because dissatisfaction is unpleasant or unbearable
and because they’d be satisfied either way. In some cases, people might
have an antecedent preference, but the intervention
might change it so that they will be happy
and possibly grateful even if they did not want to
be intervened on in advance. So these are cases where we’re
fine with the status quo. It might be something small. It might be something large. There’s an intervention
that changes something in a small way or a large way. Afterwards, people
are extremely glad. The “as judged by
themselves” criterion is met. It’s not a navigability problem. Is that a justified
intervention? Things are getting
complicated here. I think the best way
into the complication is to talk about cases
involving big decisions, sometimes called
transformative experiences, in which people’s identity and
their preferences and values are at stake. Once people make
certain decisions or are nudged or architected to
make them, what they care about and who they deeply are,
are different from what they were before. This is an area
which is extremely important and interesting
in its own right, but also has general
implications. If people are deciding
whether to get married, to have children, to change
occupations, to change cities, their preferences and values
might be altered as a result– to convert on religious
grounds, to convert maybe their political convictions. Things turn round, and
those decisions redefine who they are at their core. That’s a very hard question to
evaluate in normative terms, whether they are
well-off, better off, before or after, because
who they are has changed. Words from Possession. “This is where I have
been coming to always, since my time began. And when I go away
from here, this will be the midpoint to
which everything ran before and from which
everything will now run. But now–” and this is Randolph
Ash speaking to his lover Charlotte. “But now, my love, we are
now, and those other times are running elsewhere.” In extreme and
less extreme cases, application of the “as judged
by themselves” criterion gets hard. Choice architects cannot
simply claim to be vindicating choosers’ preferences. It’s not a case
where people know their preferred destination. If we look after
the fact, people do think that they are better off. And in that sense, the criterion
is met, but is that enough? I think the challenge
is that however people in such circumstances
are intervened on, they’re going to agree
that they are better off. How should we evaluate
the intervention? In my view, there’s
no escaping something which is really hard– a welfarist analysis. We have to look at the two
different worlds and ask, what kind of approach makes
people’s lives go better? There’s no escaping
that question. It may be the
strictures on government justify a presumption
one way or the other. But from the standpoint
of political theory, normative thought, thinking
which kind of life is better from the first
person perspective– you’re the decider– or from the third
person perspective– you’re the friend, the advisor– there’s no escaping
the welfarist analysis. OK, one final question. Should we depart from the “as
judged by themselves” standard? Should we reject Mill’s claim
that, for epistemic reasons, so long as there is
no harm to others, people get to choose at least
their preferred destination? So qualifying Mill, but
adding the navigability, filling that gap. Should we be with Mill and
saying people get to choose? If the question
is meant to doubt whether people’s
judgments before the fact are always authoritative
with respect to what makes their lives go better,
the answer is simple– no. People might not
welcome a mandate, even though it is very
much in their interests. If the question is
whether people’s judgments after the fact might
be authoritative, the answer is less simple. If we’re concerned
about people’s welfare, it’s surely relevant,
and a terrible sign, that people reject
a mandate or a ban. In a free society,
the presumption must be that they’re right. But if we’re
speaking about things that severely impair people’s
health, their mortality is– you know, they lose years
of life, they suffer. If the issue
involves serious harm and if the evidence
is overwhelming, we’re going to have to abandon
the “as judged by themselves” standard– reluctantly, but still. Final words. Countless interventions–
more every day, actually– increase people’s navigability
writ large in the sense that they help us get
where we want to go and, therefore,
enable us to satisfy our antecedent preferences. Many other interventions, and
these are also proliferating, thank goodness, help people to
overcome self-control problems, are warmly welcomed by
choosers, and so are consistent with the “as judged
by themselves” standard. When people lack
antecedent preferences, or when those preferences
just aren’t firm, or when an intervention
constructs or alters their preferences, the
“as judged by themselves” standard is a lot harder
to operationalize. And if I’ve been
clear, the problem is it doesn’t lead
to a unique solution. They’re OK this way. They’re OK that way. The old Gwyneth
Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, which I haven’t seen. Let’s do a remake. She’s happy either way. Which is better? No escaping the need
to ask hard questions about what’s her life like in
both, the welfarist question. That’s the only place we can go. Here are the greatest
lines I think the first or second
greatest poet of the English
language, John Milton, wrote when he was blind. So he wrote them in a way that
was more difficult from most in Paradise Lost, a tale of
freedom, writing about Adam and Eve, who have
succumbed to temptation and lost everything there
is and been expelled by God from the Garden of Eden. And these are the words that
came out of Milton’s mouth. “Some natural tears they
dropped, but wiped them soon. The world was all
before them, where to choose their place of rest,
and Providence their guide. They hand-in-hand, with
wandering steps and slow, through Eden took
their solitary way.” Recall, finally, once more,
a passage which I think is the same theme about
what it means to be human. A passage from
Byatt’s Possession, which is also a tale of
freedom, of a fortunate fall. And Byatt is insistent,
I think, that it’s a fortunate fall and a
uniquely human kind of joy. “In the morning, the whole
world had a strange new spell. It was the smell
of the aftermath– a green smell, a smell
of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed
wood and splashed sap.” Byatt’s being a
little subtle here. “A tart smell, which
bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of
death and destruction, and it smelled fresh
and lively and hopeful.” Thanks. [APPLAUSE] So, a little like a sermon, yes? Terrible. I am so sorry. Questions, comments? So, as you can see, I
hope, the positive liberty, negative liberty is
very unclear about how people find the solution
to a navigation problem. I’m not clear, in my own mind,
whether a solution to that is positive liberty
or it’s making negative liberty possible. Probably depends on where
the obstacle to navigability comes from. It may be blocking the
exercise of negative liberty. So we have that. The literature on addiction
and related problems is, at its best,
astonishingly good. And I just got into it for
purposes of these remarks. And what makes it so powerful
is it portrays the addiction problem as people can’t
navigate their way out, and there’s a lack of freedom. Now, that is also true for
little self-control problems that people know they face. What makes this hard is that
what may, to you and me, look like a self-control
problem, might be to the agent a wonderful day, and
they deserve respect. They’re having a wild day. It’s not a self-control problem. It’s Saturday. So that makes that
one a little harder than the simple
navigability issue that I think Duflo is on top of. The area where I kind of blocked
is on the case where people are architected through how a street
looks or how a website looks or how a government
information policy looks leaves them happy either way. And it can be on some little
thing like a health care plan– maybe it’s not that little– or on some big thing, like
what city they’re living in. Then the thinking
about, which is best– I’m bracketing the question of
fear and distrust of government and just asking the
normative question. It’s extremely hard to avoid
a big welfare question. What way makes people’s
lives go better? It’s a question we each
have to ask ourselves for the big ones
or the little ones, so long as third
parties aren’t affected. Was it the theological
thing that’s silencing you? It wasn’t meant–
so the question is, what’s missing here? Someone I know is reviewing this
book for Reason magazine, which is a libertarian magazine. He typically is– I think the technical
word is not a fan. And I’m quite curious what the
libertarian objection would be. That’s interesting. The practical upshot is
that the idea of signposting has been a neglected part
of, let’s say, Anglo American legal and political traditions. Should we try a
behavioral intervention to get you to ask a question? The person who asks the first
question gets $10 million. AUDIENCE: I’m Mike. CASS SUNSTEIN: That
is Monopoly money. It’s not real money. AUDIENCE: Hi,
Professor Sunstein. I was just wondering, do
you think it’s possible for the majority–
so most people– to imagine or accept
that they could be happier in that alternate
reality or after that choice? Is that something that
just intrinsically people tend to reject if
they are happy now? CASS SUNSTEIN: OK, so we
know that, on average, people on a 0 to 10 scale
tend to be around 7 or 8 on happiness. So that’s good news. And that fits with your point. The idea that a large change
could produce a big welfare gain is jarring. And there may be a natural human
caution about things like that. There’s a book recently out–
it’s a popular book– called When To Jump about people
who make fundamental career reallocations. They were x, and
then they went just to y, where y might be really
fun, but it’s not impressive. But it’s what they
always wanted to do. And my understanding is
that when to jump idea has taken off
dramatically, which suggests for a certain
segment of people– you know, age 25 to
whatever, 25 and up– the idea of jumping, in
that sense, is appealing. Now, what strikes
me as really hard is, if people are very
happy, but they would be happy the other way, too. And then just risk
aversion might think, you know, if it ain’t
broke, don’t fix it. But I guess one possibility
is it is broke, don’t fix it, is leaving people too cautious. There’s a paper
by Steve Levitt– he’s a co-author, I think,
of Freakonomics fame– which shows that with respect to
certain significant decisions, I think divorce
is one, people are too cautious in terms of their
own well-being about changing. The effect of a large scale
change for a certain class of large decisions,
just the data suggests people are
doing great after, and people don’t know that. So there may be a bias
that is yet to be named. It’s in the nature of status
quo bias or change aversion that is, in certain kinds
of cases, impairing welfare. AUDIENCE: Hi,
Professor Sunstein. So you mentioned that
you didn’t necessarily know what the libertarian
response would be. I’m not a libertarian,
but I could imagine two concerns
that I might have if I were looking at this. And the first is that it’s hard
to know if you are successfully limiting yourself
to simply helping people achieve their
own self-defined ends as opposed to using that as
a crutch to steer people toward ends that we all
view– that we tend to view as socially desirable, but that
may not be in that individual’s self-defined best interest. And the second is that there
is a risk of entrenchment in that when you
give someone a GPS, you are leading them to
specific destinations that might be reliable for what they
want, but might not show them the full range of actual
possible paths for where they would want to go. And that some of those
paths might be even better, or that it might stop new
paths from developing. And I was wondering what
your responses would be to those kinds of [INAUDIBLE]. CASS SUNSTEIN: Both
of those are great. So you could imagine a GPS– so GPSes are a little like
this, but one that would be more self-consciously options. It could even be called options,
where instead of giving you a preferred path, it
would give you 12 or 4, and you could choose. And that could be better
on multiple grounds. And the libertarian,
I think, would find it congenial in so
far as it allowed people to have the option of options. And you could generalize that. So that’s really interesting. And I think to take that on
board is completely appropriate for the fan of navigability,
to think that some people would want four routes. If you’re dealing with
a doctor or a client or the health care system or
the criminal justice system, your amended GPS might be
better on libertarian grounds than one that
gives you a default and then allows you to
opt out, so to speak. Something that gives you four. The other question is
really interesting. I hadn’t thought of
it, so thank you. The idea might be that
the government’s choice of the means to promote your
end is infected by its belief about what appropriate ends are. That’s fair. Suppose we thought that
calories are a very weak health indicator. So the government’s going all
over calories, because people care about their health. But that’s not the
thing to disclose. It should be, let’s say,
sugars or other things. If we think the government
has ignorance or malevolence, then we might not want it to
be means paternalistic, even, on the ground that it will screw
you up with respect to means and start monkeying
around with your ends. In uncertain
empirical assumptions about the likelihood of
error of government officials and the good functioning of
markets, that would be true. The only thing I
think to say to that is that there are
some areas where the government
can’t avoid having some kind of architecture. That’s like the water story. Like insofar as it has
a website or an office or is writing some
program, it will be architecting and providing
something like a GPS. Think of an airport– an airport that
doesn’t help people find their way on
the ground that we can’t trust the
government to know, who’s going to fly
into that airport. An airport that is having
severe libertarian– let’s suppose it’s a
government-run airport with a libertarian
population, so no signposts. Nightmare, yes? I mean, literal nightmare. You aren’t as terrified
of this as I am. This is why this book
is a very personal book. Richard? AUDIENCE: Thanks,
Professor Sunstein. You mentioned that
there is a lack of signposting as part of the
American legislative process. How much do you think
that is a difficulty in achieving agreement
on the nitty-gritty of a specific sign posting? And how much of it do you think
the administrative state is just better able– how much deference should there
be to the administrative state in making those decisions? CASS SUNSTEIN: So I didn’t
mean to say anything, if I did, about the legislative
process in the United States. I might think something like
that, but I want to ponder. On the judicial deference
to administrative judgments, I think this wouldn’t
suggest any particular view. You could think that
judicial deference to administrative
judgments is horrible because the administrators
are foolish or corrupt. Or you could think
it’s wonderful because the judges
are generalists who don’t know anything. The only idea would be for
the administrative state– so, when I was in the White
House, the thing I heard, I think, more than anything
from the private sector was not regulate more or
regulate less or quit. It was, instead, we don’t
know why you want us to do. It was a lack of clarity. And so for the
administrative state, both to be clear, where clarity
is justified by the substance, and also to be helping people
solving navigability problems. Like with the
Affordable Care Act, whether you like it or not,
it or anything in the same universe as it, [INAUDIBLE]
solve navigability problems for people, and it isn’t. So under the Affordable
Care Act now, people are making choices
that are, in terms of dollars and health, not good. And this should be a kind
of bipartisan priority. I’m thinking for the
Department of Transportation, over 35,000 Americans died on
the highways in recent years. That’s a statistic, but
each one is a tragedy. So Vice President Biden
uses the word literally as, like, an exclamation point
when it doesn’t actually mean literally, and I’m
not sure if I’m doing that. But the deaths on the
highway are literally a navigation problem. Pretty close. Maybe even literally. And to see it that way,
to have a war, let’s say, on highway deaths,
that would be pretty good. And if the Department
of Transportation doesn’t do it, then
for Congress to do it, this doesn’t split people
along political lines. But no one wants to be
in a car crash tonight, or hardly anyone. And those who do should
be talked out of it. To try to find a
way to do things, that would be a
fantastic achievement. AUDIENCE: Thank you so
much for being here today. This was wonderful. My question is a lot of
the sort of huge issues that are facing
our country today, like climate change and health
care, have been so politicized that it almost seems like
every four, six, eight years, the policies are going
to bounce back and forth and back and forth. And that, I think,
obviously creates a navigability problem
for citizens and companies and everyone and the world. So what could be a
solution to this? How do you see how
politicized this country has gotten as a problem, and
what can we do with that? CASS SUNSTEIN: It’s great. Here’s something
that is just numbers that bear on what you said. The Obama administration
finalized somewhere north of 2,000 regulations– not far north– which
is fewer than, I think, the Bush administration. Over eight years,
it was around 2,500. So that’s the numbers. The Trump administration
has eliminated– I don’t have the last count. There are different
ways of counting. But in the ballpark, maybe, of
70 of 4,000-plus from the two previous administration. So it’s a little like an
Austin Powers movie, right? Where when we say we’re
going to make people pay a million dollars and the friend
of Dr. Evil says, you know, it’s 2000-whatever. That’s not that much money now. 70 regulations. It’s significant. But there’s a lot more
stability in the system than appears from
the newspapers, and less politicization
than at the high levels. I’m going to embrace
your point in a moment. But it’s worth
pausing over this, that a very big deal was the
Obama administration’s mercury regulation, which a lot
of the Republicans hated. And the Trump administration
quietly said, pretty recently, we don’t like the analysis. We disagree with three
important things. But we’re going to keep it. We propose to keep it. And with respect to automobiles,
speaking of road safety, we have– this is a very helpful– you know, I read books
on public speaking before this presentation. Because it’s my new book, and
I didn’t want to screw it up. They say use hand gestures. So this is driving. Is that helpful? There’s a camera
in every new car. And the Trump
administration not only didn’t take away
that regulation, it enthusiastically said,
this is a great idea. And the FDA under Trump
did exactly the same thing with calorie labels. The new nutrition facts
panel, my understanding is that’s going into effect. With respect to particulate
matter and ozone– so many of the things, there’s
more stability than appears. You chose good examples,
climate change and health care, where with climate, a lot
has also not been changed. But a lot, they’re
proposing to change. In health care, of course,
things are being done. I’m not sure how to
think about this. There are two things
I guess you could say. One is that to have
institutional mechanisms that are more aggressively
stabilizing is a good idea to prevent
uncertainty and defeated expectations. And the other is
to say that this is a salutary process of
self-government and learning. So if you learn that one
administration did things that were bad or if people just,
on balance, think it was, then you can have a desirable,
even though somewhat jarring, change. Probably, to have a regime
of legal scrutiny, which calls for a substantive
justification for a departure from the status quo,
is an excellent idea. And it empowers the forces,
let’s say, of technocracy within government. And no one marches under a
flag that says technocracy now. But many of the things
that go well, go well because people who know what
they’re doing have done them. And if you ask them
whether they’re Republicans or
Democrats, they might find that as interesting
a question as, you know, what’s their favorite
baseball team, meaning not very interesting. Unless they’re
real baseball fans. So why are you asking me this? I’m trying to solve a
problem, rather than being led by my political nose. So something in the direction
of ballast within the system is probably good, while
allowing the learning. I mean, one reason
the mercury rule wasn’t change is that the
industry said, don’t change it. We’re used to it. And so that creates ballast. Yeah? AUDIENCE: Thank you,
Professor Sunstein. Just a quick question. I’m curious as the
role that you think popular culture and
scientific literacy might play in getting
people to rethink certain conventional attitudes
and confidences in themselves as choosing machines. So I wonder whether one of the
reasons that so many people are resistant to the idea of nudges
and paternalism more broadly is this lingering intuitive
overconfidence most of us have that we are coherent,
robust selves with agency, responsibility, certain sort
of thought-terminating cliches about free will. And whether as people
read more popularizations of the social
sciences– nudge being among the most
influential– that might help to dismantle
their confidence in the idea of a coherent, stable self. And maybe make them more
honest for themselves as choosing machines. So it certainly seems
right to say that knowledge at the first order
about the fact that they have a problem isn’t
enough to get them to change. But I wonder whether you might
be more optimistic that as pop culture spreads
the idea for people that we are sort of
physical entities with limited willpower,
system one and system two, maybe that will slowly
trickle into a more modest understanding of
our choices and limitations and a receptiveness to nudges. Or am I being too optimistic? CASS SUNSTEIN: No, that’s great. So I’ll tell you
why I’m smiling. Remember my daughter,
six years old, saying, system one is crazy? The full story is I asked her,
what are you talking about? And she said, come on, Daddy. And there’s this little thing
on the iPad for six-year-olds, which is about the brain,
and they had a little episode on system one and system two. So this is the
younger generation. They are– yeah. The only point I’d add is
that I have another book out. This book took about a year. I have another one that
took about five years, which has international
surveys on what people think of nudges
and choice-preserving interventions. And the basic story is that the
kinds of things we’re talking about, Americans like them. Republicans like them. Democrats like them. Germans like them. Canadians like them. The French like them. The Italians like them. The Russians like them. The Chinese love them. The South Koreans love them. The Mexicans love them. The Hungarians
kind of like them. That’s basically what
the world looks like. So Americans– I
have data on this– there are certain
health and safety interventions that are mandates
that people don’t like. But so long as it’s information,
warning, default rule, there’s somewhere
between strong majority and overwhelming public
support typically across political lines. So maybe the next generation
will be even more supportive. But the things we’re
talking about now don’t raise, in
general, hackles. I think speaking of
navigability problems, I should let you find your
way to your next place. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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