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20191110 – On Freedom



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The main idea of this book is that freedom is good in theory and not really good in practice because regular people do not really know what they want or if they do think they know it, they could be wrong, or even if it would be good for them, it could be not so good for society. Therefore people should be nudged by some, not really specified, assumingly expert, external forces into doing right things, and if it is not enough, then coerced.


Introduction: Bitten Apples

It starts with discussion of Navigability, stating that difficulty of navigation in some areas is a major source of “unfreedom in human life”. Author considers it a blind spot in Western philosophy and seems to be ready to remove it. Here is his statement of intent: “While my main focus is on navigability, I shall also be asking these questions about freedom and well-being: What if people’s free choices are decisively influenced by some aspect of the social environment, and they are happy either way? In such cases, how should designers of the social environment—employers, teachers, doctors, investment advisers, companies, and governments—proceed? As we shall see, these questions are both difficult and fundamental.

He also expresses believe that one of the most important is self-control which could be help via external intervention, which could be done to people so they would comply, “while retaining their freedom (and from a certain point of view, even increasing it)”

Chapter 1: What the Hell Is Water?

Here author discusses choice architecture ”—the environment in which choices are made. Choice architecture is inevitable, whether or not we see it, and it affects our choices. It is the equivalent of water.” After that he moves to “Nudges”, which he defines as “Nudges are interventions that fully preserve freedom of choice, but that also steer people’s decisions in certain directions. In daily life, a GPS device is an example of a nudge. It respects your freedom; you can ignore its advice if you like.

Author discusses real nudges implemented by government to direct people and identifies causes of, what he believes, is unreasonable resistance:

  • Fear of government, which he rejects mainly because the private actors could be as bad;
  • Need to decide for themselves what is good or not, which he also reject based on 3 issues:
    • External manipulation
    • People could deem as “good for themselves” some ugly things like racism;
    • People could learn to “love Big Brother”.


After that author moves to the problems of the Nudger that he divides in 3 categories:

  1. Those in which choosers have clear antecedent preferences, and nudges help them to satisfy those preferences.
  2. Those in which choosers face a self-control problem, and nudges help them to overcome that problem.
  3. Those in which choosers would be content with the outcomes produced by two or more nudges, or in which after-the-fact preferences are a product of or constructed by nudges so that the “as judged by themselves” criterion leaves choice architects with several options, without specifying which one to choose.

Chapter 2: Navigability

This starts with Food Pyramid that later turned into Food Plate as example of improvement in “choice architecture”. Then author moves to the problem of navigation overall and life navigation specifically, discussing advices to poor to take responsibility by rich people who have little responsibility because their wealth protects them. Then he discusses a problem of destination: people often do not know where they want to go. At the end of chapter author discusses the problem of sludge by which he means decrease in Navigability.

Chapter 3: Self-Control

This is about failure of self-control and/or awareness of it such as all forms of addiction, present bias, unrealistic optimism, and others. Here again author maintains his main point that it is warrants external intervention, at least in the form of nudge. He reports survey of 200 people he conducted with 70% complaining on lack of self-control from which he infer that people would generally welcome intervention. He also discusses time line: “Preference at Time 1; make certain choices at Time 2; and regret those choices at Time 3. Perhaps an intervention will eliminate the conflict. Perhaps an intervention, or a nudge, will increase freedom”.
From here author infers: “In my view, there is no alternative to resorting to some kind of external standard, involving a judgment about what makes the chooser’s life better, all things considered. That judgment might require moral evaluations of options and outcomes. It might require some kind of aggregate judgment about people’s personal wellbeing. In many cases in which people think differently at Time 1, Time 2, and Time 3, we have to ask: “What is the effect of honoring one or another thought on the person’s well-being over time? … Valuing freedom of choice does not tell us what we need to know.

Chapter 4: Happy Either Way

Here author analyzes cases when “It is not clear if we have antecedent preferences at all. Perhaps we do not. We might have no idea what we want. We might lack important information, and if we have it, we still might not know what we want. In other cases, our after-the-fact preferences are an artifact of, or constructed by, the nudge. Sometimes these two factors are combined (as savvy marketers are well-aware). We are speaking here of “endogenous preferences,” and in particular of preferences that are endogenous to, or a product of, the relevant choice architecture. In such cases, how should we think about freedom of choice? And how ought the “as judged by themselves” criterion to be understood and applied?”

Once again author apply the same solution: external intervention in form of nudge. The final part is about what to do if nudge does not work. The obvious solution for author is coercion. Here is his logic: “hard paternalism, and no mere nudge—might end up producing an outcome akin to what we would see if consumers were at once informed and attentive. Suppose that the benefits of the mandate greatly exceed the costs and that there is no significant loss in terms of consumer welfare (in the form, for example, of reductions in safety, performance, or aesthetics). If so, there is good reason to believe that the mandate does make consumers better off. Freedom of choice fails. “

Epilogue: “Through Eden Took Their Solitary Way”

Here is author summarization: “Freedom of choice should be cherished, but cherishing it is hardly enough. Countless interventions and reforms increase navigability, writ large. They enable people to get where they want to go, and therefore enable them to satisfy their preferences and to realize their values. They operate like maps. Many other interventions and reforms, helping people to overcome self-control problems, are also welcomed by choosers. Such interventions increase navigability and promote freedom. They can be consistent with the “as judged by themselves” standard. Numerous people acknowledge that they suffer from self-control problems. They welcome the help. They exercise their freedom of choice in its favor. Sometimes people lack clear preferences. Sometimes their preferences are not firm. When a nudge or other intervention constructs or alters their preferences, and when they would be happy either way, the “as judged by themselves” standard is more difficult to operationalize. It may not lead to a unique solution. But it restricts the universe of candidate solutions, and in that sense helps to orient choice architects. To resolve the most difficult questions, it might make sense to see what informed, consistent choosers do, or instead to make direct inquiries into wellbeing. The first approach is best unless choosers suffer from a behavioral bias—and if choice architects cannot be trusted. The second is best if choosers suffer from a behavioral bias—and if choice architects can be trusted. For the future, we need far more careful consideration of the ingredients of wellbeing, informed by evidence as well as by theory. We need the arts and the humanities, social science, law, and theology.”


The big problem that I have with this approach is with author’s practically complete omission of what are these external, all knowing forces that always know what is good for us individually, or for us as society. Author does recognize the problem with “choice architects” imperfectability, but dispatches with this problem by saying that it requires careful consideration.  I think no amount of consideration would be enough for one person “feel your pain” in reality. It is just human nature that, as once eloquently described: ”paper cut of a person’s finger is tragedy, but million people dead after earthquake in distant land is unhappy incident”.  So whatever government “experts” want people believe, their own well being will always be tremendously more important for them than wellbeing of people they nudge or coerce in direction of their choice. Consequently I think that individuals who will enjoy or suffer consequences should do all decision-making, otherwise decision maker would never pay enough attention and effort for making good decision as defined by preference of outcome.

Actually author’s idea could be expressed in much more concise way just by following Orwellian traditions: ” Slavery is the Real Freedom”.

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