Wednesday 31 July 2013


Richard Thaler had a term for people with an irrational fear of slippery slopes: bathmophobes. He counted Glen Whitman among their ranks for warning that Thaler's "nudge" architecture could would up proving rather illiberal in practice. I worried, in my Mont Pelerin address, that by reducing the costs of paternalism, Nudge seemed more likely to expand the range of paternalism rather than transform existing paternalisms into softer alternatives. Paternalism gets cheaper so we get more of it. I suppose I'd have been a bathmophobe as well.

Anyway, here's Thaler on the bathmophobes:
For example, you may not be familiar with bathmophobia, which is an abnormal and persistent fear of stairs or steep slopes, or a fear of falling. Less well known is “nudgephobia,” also known as the Whitman-Rizzo syndrome, which is the fear of being gently nudged down a slope while standing on a completely flat surface. This phobia is sometimes associated with other disorders such as the fear of being given helpful directions when lost; the fear of obtaining reliable medical advice when sick; and, in rare cases, some have even suffered from a fear of having someone recommend a book or movie that you will really like.

...Another basic point that Whitman does not recognize is that paternalism of some sort is inevitable. Consider the following common problem. Most firms have an open enrollment period in November when employees can elect their benefit package for the following year. At my employer, the University of Chicago, you have a few weeks to log on to the appropriate web site and make your selections. The question is, what should the employer do for those employees who forget to log on? (Professors’ reputations for absent-mindedness are well deserved.) For each of the choices the employee has, the employer needs to select a default option for those who do not log on, and normally the default is either “same choice as last year” or “back to zero” (meaning, decline this option). At Chicago the default option for the health insurance plan is the same as last year.

...Presumably, if libertarian paternalism creates a slope risk then real paternalism must generate a “cliff” risk. But have we seen this in history? In America we started as Puritans but moved away from it. When Prohibition was passed into law it did not lead to a slew of other paternalistic interventions. On the contrary, once society got to see prohibition in action, the law was eventually repealed. Is there any evidence of a paternalistic slide? The only example Whitman gives is smoking, where there certainly has been a progression of increasingly intrusive laws passed. But there are several problems with this example. First, most of the anti-smoking laws are based on externalities, not paternalism. People do not want to fly, eat, or work in smoke-filled environments. Indeed, many smokers favor such laws. Note that while smoking bans are not nudges, they are shoves, even these shoves do not seem to have led to a batch of similar crackdowns in other domains. I have not seen any municipality institute a ban on loud talking in restaurants, for example, though come to think of it… .

In short, the risk of the slippery slope appears to be a figment of Professor Whitman’s imagination, and clear evidence of his bathmophobia. 
Remember that old Simpsons episode where Lisa convinces an amnesiac Burns about the merits of recycling? And he goes on to recycle the ocean into Little Lisa Slurry? And Lisa recoils in horror at the evil she helped enable?

I wonder if that's how Richard Thaler's feeling now. Perhaps he should be. Why? This.

I suppose it's all fine. After all, there has to be some default position on whether you wish to have a censored internet package. The choice of default "porn and dangerous thoughts allowed" will have consequences, as will the alternative of "porn and dangerous thoughts not allowed, unless you tell your ISP that you like porn and dangerous thoughts and maybe get put on some list because of it". The government cannot help but to influence outcomes by its choice of the default position. So why not ban dangerous thoughts by default. It's still Libertarian Paternalistic, because you can still opt out. And really, why would anybody need to have access to websites including "violent material", "extremist and terrorist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites", "suicide related websites", or websites mentioning alcohol and smoking. We know those are all bad things; the government tells us so. Switching the default is a perfect Thaler-inspired nudge.

And it's not just me calling this a nudge policy.
The Independent notes the filters implemented by the four main private internet providers will be "default-on," meaning users must explicitly choose to turn them off. Users can decide to keep certain filters while turning others off.
Making the filters default means most people will keep them, according to Open Rights Group Executive Director Jim Killock. "We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind 'nudge theory' and 'choice architecture' that is popular with Cameron."
According to Cameron, the new parental control settings will be turned on for all new broadband subscribers "by the end of the year."
If anything, I've been inadequately bathmophobic. Here's what I wrote about this exact policy back in 2010 when it first came up:
I'm going to bet that this doesn't wind up being implemented. Here's Hansard of the debate. The Minister seemed pretty lukewarm on pushing through regulatory changes; I'll guess that the latest reports are bargaining position for either getting ISPs to do more to push subsidized Net Nanny variants to folks who want them, or for concessions on other issues altogether. Dick Puddlecote is livid (rightly so) but I'd be shorting the iPredict contract at prices higher than $0.35. It's pretty disgusting that a coalition that includes the Lib Dems would be even making noises in this direction.
I was wrong.

Since we're into the range of policies-I'd-previously-thought-implausible, let's turn back to my review of Nudge in the Christchurch Press a few years ago, in which I wondered whether Sunstein and Thaler would be happy with choice architecture at the ballot box.
While Sunstein worries about our decisions over investment plans or our weakness of will at the buffet table, I worry about our decisions at the voting booth. We vote infrequently, there’s no feedback from our personal voting decision to any policy outcome (unless you happen to hit Lotto by breaking a tie), the voting decision is complex and we may have little grasp of the issues at stake let alone our own positions on those issues. In my own research, I’ve found that only about half of voters in 2005 could place National, United Future, and Labour correctly on a left-right spectrum, for example, and that individuals’ political knowledge independently affects their policy and party preferences even after controlling for income, education, race, employment, gender, and other demographic characteristics. And so I think we (by which I mean you) need a nudge. Under my libertarian paternalistic voting system, your electoral enrolment would be linked to your census details. You’d then answer a brief questionnaire when entering a computerized voting booth, and I’d tell you, through the computer’s algorithms, for whom you should vote. Trust me: I’d be choosing the option that really would be best for you, if you only understood all of the policies supported by each of the parties and had a PhD economist’s understanding of the likely effects of these policies. You’d still be free to pick some other candidate or party, but you’d have to first reject the default choice I’d pick for you. The remaining options would then be presented in an order designed to maximize the chances of your choosing the next best option.

I trust that you find this kind of scheme repugnant. I’d find it great, so long as I got to be the choice architect.
I'd given this as reductio; I wonder whether Cameron mightn't be thinking about implementing it.

Ideas have consequences.

Update: James, in comments, notes that part of this is already up for mobile broadband:
This filter is already in effect in the UK for all "mobile broadband". It's called "content lock" - and about e.g half Lindsay Mitchell's blogroll is classified as adult content by the UK's current filter (Offsetting Behaviour is currently OK).
How do you unlock it - easy. Go to a website and enter your details. All you need is a credit card. A UK credit card. With a UK Postcode. Which, of course, I don't have.
I'm glad that Offsetting isn't on Cameron's banned list as yet.



  1. This filter is already in effect in the UK for all "mobile broadband". It's called "content lock" - and about e.g half Lindsay Mitchell's blogroll is classified as adult content by the UK's current filter (Offsetting Behaviour is currently OK).

    How do you unlock it - easy. Go to a website and enter your details. All you need is a credit card. A UK credit card. With a UK Postcode. Which, of course, I don't have.

  2. It's a terrible idea for obvious reasons (only hinders users too ignorant to circumvent it, too many false positives, too many false negatives, degrades quality of service etc.). Fortunately it seems like a lot of small ISPs will refuse to comply, which could be a competitive advantage for them. I've heard rumours of similar things happening in NZ with our internet piracy 'three strikes' law.

  3. Thaler, in your quote, says that "Presumably, if libertarian paternalism creates a slope risk then real paternalism must generate a “cliff” risk." I thought the slippery slope argument was a claim along the lines of "this change seems small and no big deal, but if we accept it for that reason we will - for the same reason - also accept countless others. The cumulative shift is a problem." There might also be a precedence-setting effect: "You didn't have a problem with policy X, which is based on the same principles, so you don't really have any good reaon to oppose this" Or: "There's so many policies based on this principle nowadays that it seems kind of natural to accept them..."

    The "single effect is small but cumulative shift is a problem" mechanism is similar to a choice problem I once heard a philosopher discussing. I think she called it "rational self-torture," and it went something along these lines: Imagine you link somebody up to an electrical shock apparatus that is embedded in their body. Once a level of shock has been activated it can never be dialed down again. Call an almost lethal, excruciatingly painful shock a shock of strength Z. Since humans can't sense small distinctions, you divide up the path from 0 to Z in small steps, each of which has no effect on your perceived level of pain. Ask a person whether to proceed to the next step for a reward, and there will be "no reason" to say no, as he/she won't notice a difference. But repeated many times, the person will then end up living a life in excruciating pain.