Book Review: Cass Sunstein “On Freedom”

When Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler published Nudge in 2008, no less a classical liberal hero than George Will raved about the book. He immediately identified what made it special:

Thaler and Sunstein correctly assume that people are busy, their lives are increasingly complicated and they have neither time nor inclination nor, often, the ability to think through even all important choices, from health care plans to retirement options. Therefore the framing of choices matters.[1] 

This is where the “nudge” comes in: subtle pressure by government that steers people in the direction of a better life. (Think mandatory nutritional information, or automatic enrollment in pension plans.) The emphasis is on framing choices, not denying them. Outright bans on behavior are blunt solutions. They don’t respect people’s autonomy, and make it so that the powers that be overwrite the preferences of individuals with their own idea of what makes for good living.

Sometimes, this isn’t a bad thing. (Would any of us want muggers to indulge their preference for mugging?) Other times, it’s not so clear. Bans on smoking may serve health ends, but there’s nothing morally objectionable about someone deciding he prefers nicotine now to living another 11 minutes on the back end.[2] According to Sunstein, nudges beat bans hands down, since nudging pushes you to act on expert advice on what’s likely to make you happy while letting you choose differently if you know something the experts don’t.

Put another way, efforts to engineer happiness by banning “bad” behavior run afoul of the local knowledge problem.[3] Nudges, while not exactly laissez faire, help deal with that by leaving you free to choose. But how valuable is the freedom of choice really? What if people don’t know their own preferences? Or what if they’re slaves to addiction, overwhelmed by the options on offer, or constrained by ignorance and poverty to choose differently than they’d like to?

These questions are at the heart of Sunstein’s new book, On Freedom. It’s a deliberately breezy read at just 116 pages, a change of pace from Nudge, which could be a little repetitive. The galley I received is well written and tightly edited, with one spot, arguing that limitations on the value of freedom of choice deserve attention “not only from philosophers … but also from philosophers,” seeming more like a feature than a bug.

In short, Sunstein argues that people’s preferences are highly unknowable not only to outsiders but, often, to themselves. You may prefer what you do because you’ve fallen into a rut. Maybe you’re unfamiliar with better alternatives. Or maybe your actual preference is worth little because you haven’t been able to act on it. Sunstein sums this problem up as navigability: how to get from where you are to a good outcome that you want.

Good nudges work by giving people access to new and better choices. More controversial is the idea that without good nudges, freedom of choice can be more of a trap than anything else. If some people are stuck choosing one bad thing over another because they’re unable to solve navigability problems, what good is it? How are “choice architects” – government nudge designers – supposed to respect their current wishes as well as improve outcomes? And if choice architects socially engineer people into wanting something new, is freedom of choice more than an illusion? Sunstein wrestles with these questions while not quite convincingly distinguishing between preferences arrived at by manipulation (bad) and those created by choice architecture (often good).

Another problem he identifies is that preferences are highly unstable. Even if you have a clear and reasoned idea of what you want now, what are you going to want in a year, or in the morning? And which preference – A, B, or even a new, constructed, post-nudge C – should choice architects try to respect? There’s a particularly engaging section of On Freedom that deals with post-hoc regret, and what it implies for what people truly prefer. There are undertones of the current debate over campus consent.

Overall, the book is a very engaging read, even if sometimes a little glib. At one point, Sunstein describes asking people on the Internet what they think of their powers of self-control, and getting overwhelming feedback that they struggle with it. He phrases his question as follows:

Many people believe that they have an issue, whether large or small, of self-control. They may eat too much, they may smoke, they may drink too much, they may not save enough money. Do you believe that you have any issue of self-control?

For an inquiry so concerned with people’s preexisting preferences, “Many people believe …” is a rather nudge-y way of finding out! But even if Sunstein makes his own preferences known a little too often, this is a great, thought-provoking contribution from one of America’s leading legal scholars. Many people think you should read it.

[1] George Will, Nudge Against the Fudge, Newsweek (June 21, 2008).
[2] Mary Shaw et al., Time for a Smoke? One Cigarette Reduces Your Life Expectancy by 11 Minutes, 320 BMJ 53 (2000).
[3] See, generally, F. A. Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society, 35 Am. Econ. Rev. 519 (1945).

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Cass Sunstein “On Freedom”

  1. J. Friedland

    Interesting post. But is the first “from” a typo? Perhaps the word should be “by”? I’m not sure what is meant here (speaking as a philosopher myself 😉

    “limitations on the value of freedom of choice deserve attention “not only from philosophers … but also from philosophers,” seeming more like a feature than a bug.”

      1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

        Worse, he’s an academic and he called my post “interesting.” You know what that means.

        1. J. Friedland

          So you’re mocking without clarifying? Not sure why the hostility. I didn’t mean anything dubious btw by “interesting”. I s the difference between “only” and “also”? If so, ok but still rather cryptic imho especially if intended as a joke.

          1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

            Sorry, it’s a bit of an injoke around here. Josh Blackman, a lawprof we like a lot, once observed that “interesting” is academic code for “bullshit.”

            As to your original question: It’s just a typo, but I found it amusing because it could be read to suggest there’s a meaningful distinction between philosophers and, well, philosophers. As I bet you’d agree, not all “philosophers” are created equal…

  2. MonitorsMost

    Many people believe that the government has an issue, whether large or monsterously large, of self-control. They may spend too much, they forget that closing tax loopholes won’t bridge a trillion dollar deficit smoke, they may favor special interests over the welfare of society too much, they may routinely violate the constitutional rights of their citizens. Do you believe that the government has even the tiniest modicum of self-control?

    1. SHG

      The self-righteous keep themselves warm at night secure in the knowledge that they are pushing the ignorant for their own good. While slippery slope is a logical fallacy, the question when it comes to those who believe they know best for others invariably seems to be whether to slowly slide down it or race to the bottom. It’s not that it has to be happen. It just does. All the time.

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