Choice Architecture and Coercion

14 September 2014



From time to time we need to be reminded (that is to say, we need to remind both ourselves and others) what it means to live in a free and open society, as the discipline of liberty is a stern one, and it is easy to go slack and to find oneself becoming tolerant of all kinds of compromises to one’s freedom, not to mention the freedom of others, which is relatively easy to sacrifice. Every day a thousand details compete for our attention, and these practical exigencies of life are often sufficient to distract us from our true interests in the long term, and in the big picture.

History does not stand still. Those in possession of the apparatus of state power are always seeking new ways to get the public to go along with the fashionable governmental programs of the moment, while citizens are always seeking ways around the controls that government attempts to impose upon them. It is a cat-and-mouse game — à bon chat, bon rat. Descartes, who lived during the period of the consolidation of the nation-state (and who fought as a solider in the Thirty Years’ War, the settlement of which was part of this process) adopted a motto from Ovid, bene qui latuit, bene vixit: He who hid well, lived well. This is a prudent maxim for any who are subject to state power.

The continual flux of one’s individual perspective, and the continual movement of history, together tend to obscure rather than to clarify where our true interests lie, and so we would do well to recur to classic formulations of liberal democracy (in the sense in which Fukuyama uses that term), and there is no more classic formulation of individual liberty in liberal democracy than is to be found in John Stuart Mill:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter I, “Introductory”

Mill’s uncompromising assertion of individual sovereignty is one of the high points of specifically western civilization, with its emphasis upon the individual and individualism. Uncompromising though it may be, it is not, however, absolute: the prevention of harm to others is not defined, and therefore subject to interpretation. An individual or a group that is bound and determined to exercise control over some other individual or group will twist their interpretation of the world until they they proved to their own satisfaction that the actions of the other individual or group are invidious to the public good, and therefore, under classic principles of political liberalism, they are justified in bringing coercion to bear in forcing the individual or group to conform to social expectations.

Mill’s assertion of individual sovereignty is also, in a sense, unexpected. For Mill in this passage, how we exercise state power matters. This way of thinking about Mill’s conception of liberty is really quite remarkable in view of the fact that Mill is probably also the most famous utilitarian, and therefore as a utilitarian is committed to a teleological (or consequentialist) ethic. But this passage is much more in the spirit of deontology than teleology. In my last post, Teleological and Deontological Conceptions of Civilization, I sought to show that teleological and deontological systems of ethical thought that have been applied to the individual also can be applied to social wholes, and here Mill, among the greatest of the representatives of utilitarian teleology, presents a case for a thoroughly deontological conception of the state and its power (i.e., mankind taken collectively).

What are we to make of individual sovereignty in an age of choice architecture? I can imagine the advocates of choice architecture making the argument that “nudging” rather than forcing citizens to adopted preferred behaviors in order to arrived at preferred outcomes is ultimately to recognize the sovereignty of the individual, and not to infringe upon that sovereignty any more than is necessary. But what is this necessity? What is the necessity of state power in industrial-technological civilization? State power in our time is primarily technical, so that its necessity is also understood as a technical requirement.

I have noted in several recent posts (Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization among them) that in industrial-technological civilization the organizing principle is technical; it is procedural rationality in its many forms that is the basis of social organization. (The term “procedural rationality” originates in the work of economist Herbert A. Simon — also known for his work on bounded rationality — though I am using the term in a wider signification than that employed by Simon, intended to include all decision making undertaken in complex contexts employing available empirical evidence in a theoretical framework that recognizes bounded rationality.)

Rationality is more constrained for some than for others; the technocrat of procedural rationality imagines that those in possession of state power have more and better information available to them than the subjects of state power, who suffer from a more tightly bounded rationality than their leaders. Therefore those with less bounded rationality and possessing greater horizons have a political responsibility to transfer their greater knowledge to the population at large through the power of the state. Choice architecture seems to be the least coercive way of doing so. (Choice architecture is not limited to state power: one could argue that the private enterprises that make it very easy to sign up to receive a good or service, but make it almost impossible to stop the delivery of said good or service, are practicing a kind of choice architecture, but these unsavory business practices are occasionally reviewed by the courts, and when found to be sufficiently coercive the courts may provide legal redress to aggrieved customers.)

The publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2009 by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, was an event of some significance in Anglophone political circles, as it was immediately seized upon by policymakers as a legitimation and justification of their “expertise” in social organization — precisely the expertise in procedural rationality that is central to industrial-technological civilization. This was unintended intellectual flattery of the first order. The great unwashed require experts to shape the finer aspects of their lives, rough-hew them though the ignorant masses may. Delivered from their miserable choices to preferred outcomes to which they are nudged, the people should be grateful to their leaders for their enlightened intervention.

In the context of social organization through procedural rationality, the inevitable rise of expertise in technical matters comes to dominate society at large. The process begins with the mere details of how life is organized, but the nature of state power is to grow without bounds (see below on the slippery slope, here applied to state power), and as procedural rationality steadily expands its scope, the state approximates what Erving Goffman called a total institution:

“The common characteristics of total institutions derive from the coercion of inmates to conform to an internal regime. They are stripped of their former identities and obliged to accept an alternative selfhood, designed to fit the expectations of staff. This transformation is effected by procedures and practices including the breakdown of the divisions separating work, sleep and play. All activities are tightly scheduled and geared to serve institutionally set tasks. These can be carried out only by obeying rules and regulations that are sanctioned by privileges and punishments administered by staff whose authority is sustained through the maintenance of a distance from inmates.”

The Social Science Encyclopedia, Third edition, Edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, VOLUME II L-Z, LONDON AND NEW YORK: Routledge, 2004, “Total Institutions,” pp. 1031-1032

The state as a total institution could be employed as a definition of totalitarianism. “Nudge” politics is very long way from being totalitarianism, or even the thin edge of the wedge of totalitarianism, but there are dangers nevertheless of which we should be aware.

At what point does choice architecture become coercive? How narrow may an individual’s options be made before we are willing to acknowledge that that individual’s life has been compromised by the institutions with the power to shape the choices available to the individual? How much can the life of the individual be compromised before we recognize this as a form of coercion? If coercion is held below the threshold of violence, is it more morally acceptable that coercion that is openly violent?

Ultimately, state power is about violence; it is not always or inevitably manifested as violence, but as violence is the ultimate guarantor of state power, any politicized question is ultimately about violence. Everyone is familiar with Max Weber’s definition of sovereignty: “The state is the human community that, within a defined territory — and the key word here is ‘territory’ — (successfully) claims the monopoly of legitimate force for itself.” While such a state does not always employ force, it can employ force if necessary, and here the only necessity is political necessity, as defined by the sovereign state. As noted above, today this is a technical necessity governed by technical requirements, and in so far as the human condition is made rigorous, technical necessity leaves no aspect of life untouched.

A common but commonly unstated theme in such discussions is the doctrine of tacit consent. Everyone today, in virtue of being born on some particular scrap of geography, is the subject of some territorially-defined nation-state that seeks to enforce the territorial principle in law. Thus every human being alive today has been judged to have given their tacit consent to the state power of some nation-state or other. What is the basis for this claim? Along with John Stuart Mill, one of the godfathers of political liberalism is John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government was an important influence on the American founding fathers, but Locke was willing to assert a sweeping doctrine of tacit consent that I find problematic at best, an invitation of inter-generational tyranny at worst:

“Nobody doubts but an express consent of any man entering into any society makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds — i. e., how far any one shall be looked upon to have consented and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say that every man that has any possessions or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government does thereby give his tacit consent and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as anyone under it; whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week, or whether it be barely traveling freely on the highway; and, in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, section 119

Here Locke appears unambiguously as a theorist of the territorial principle in law (also assumed by Weber in the quote above), as no one who came from interpenetrating ethnic communities, each ruled by their own law (i.e., the personal principle in law), would ever assert that lodging for a week in some territory subjects the individual to the law of the government that claims sovereignty over that territory. In this way, we can see Locke as one of many political philosophers who contributed to the formulation of the theory of the nation-state at a time when the nation-state remained yet inchoate.

The slippery slope of political obligation in the context of tacit consent would imply that every citizen of a nation-state that engages in genocidal persecution and warfare is at least an accessory, if not a willing and active participant, in such moral outrages (cf. Genocide and the Nation-State). Throughout the twentieth century, in fact, this was the conclusion that was derived in fact, if not in theory. Thus the destruction of a wartime enemy’s population was justified because that population facilitated the prosecution of the war, even if their employment had not changed since the war in question began (i.e., even if they are not employed in war industries). They have, after all, given their tacit consent to the nation-state in which they reside. This kind of political reasoning brought humanity face-to-face with annihilation in the twentieth century, and we can be glad that, whatever the horrendous depredations of that century, it did not ultimately follow through to the bitter end the political logic of its time.

For a logician, a slippery slope is a fallacy, and the logician is right: there is no logical way to derive a transition from the thin edge of the wedge to the thick edge — but if there is a sledgehammer pounding down on the wedge, the likelihood of the thin edge leading to the thick edge is quite high. Life is not logical. Psychologically a slippery slope is very real, very treacherous, and every consummate manipulator (if you live long enough, you will meet many of them) knows how to exploit human frailty with a slippery slope. (This is why we say, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”) Indeed, any logical explication of the slippery slope fallacy ought to be presented with an explication of the cognitive biases of availability cascade, bandwagon effect, illusory correlation, and irrational escalation. We could, in fact, name a new cognitive bias — say, the slippery slope effect — which is the likelihood of individuals to allow themselves to be led down a slippery slope despite this slope being a logical fallacy.

While logicians recognize the appeal to a slippery slope as a fallacy, the logicians have no answer to the paradoxes of the heap, also called sorites paradoxes, which consider the problems inherent in vagueness. Well, it would not exactly be right to say that logicians have “no answer” to sorites paradoxes, only that there are many logical theories for dealing with sorites paradoxes, but none of these theories are universally accepted, and the paradox appears so frequently in human experience that its paradoxicality cannot be wished away. Where exactly the transition from choice architecture to coercion occurs admits of no easy answers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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