Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Politicians advocate ‘nudging’ to influence how we act

Historically, governments at all levels have taken a passive approach to providing their services.

Those who sought services, whatever they were, had to initiate the processes of obtaining them.

In recent decades, however, federal, state and some local governments have become more proactive with “outreach” campaigns, including paid advertisements, to market themselves and persuade their constituents to engage – or not engage – in certain activities.

Their campaigns beseech us to wear our seat belts, stop smoking, buy health insurance, avoid texting while driving, pay our taxes and vote, to mention but a few examples.

We are on the brink of the next phase of governmental activism – or intrusion. The professionals call it “behavioral science,” but the feel-good term is “nudging.”

It’s going beyond mere suggestion to get Americans to act as those in government believe we should and edges closer to compulsion.

In September, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to federal agencies that they should use “behavioral science insights” to “better serve the American people.”

That may mean something as benign as making government offices user-friendly or revising the ridiculous, monopolistic state licensing laws governing trades and professions.

But clearly many advocates see it in more activist terms.

“This order reflects the evidence…that people often fail to make rational choices,” Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino wrote after Obama acted. “Across a wide range of contexts, we often make foolish decisions that go against our self-interest. We exercise too little and eat too much. We spend too much, don’t save enough, and wind up heavily in debt.”

To counteract what Gino calls “such deviations from rationality,” advocates believe governments should focus on changing behavior through various inducements, and perhaps through semi-coercion.

Recently, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León co-wrote a newspaper article saying, “California is perfectly positioned to take ‘nudging’ to the next level – by combining best ‘nudge’ practices from around the world with our state’s own digital revolution.”

He announced a California Digital Nudge Initiative to explore ways “to better serve Californians,” using smartphone apps. One example: An app that would automatically cut off texting in a vehicle once it reaches 15 miles per hour. Another: Sending election-day messages to voters to persuade them to cast ballots.

Actually, de León has already launched one experiment in changing behavior – his plan to have workers lacking an employer-based pension plan be semi-automatically enrolled in a state-sponsored retirement system. Their contributions would be automatically deducted from paychecks unless they opted out.

Removing barriers to participation is praiseworthy, but how far should government go to compel us to avoid “deviations from rationality”? At what point does it become our master, rather than our servant?