Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:13 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:13 | SYDNEY

Is Obama 'nudging' already?


Sam Roggeveen


22 January 2009 08:39

President Obama has made a good start by promising to improve the transparency of government and make it harder for the Administration to withold information from the public. Of course, such promises have been made and broken before by governments all around the world, but it is notable that Obama should be making this pledge on his first full day in office.

Over time, it would become progressively more tempting for the Administration to refrain from making promises of accountability and transparency, since they will have done more things and made more mistakes and thus have more to hide. So by making this pledge now, Obama is to some degree locking his Administration in before that temptation takes hold. He can always backslide later, but that will be politically costly, since the press and his political opponents will remind him of the pledge he made on day one.

Some of you might remember my mentioning last year a book on behavioural economics called 'Nudge', which argues that 'choice architecture' can be used to influence behaviour. The authors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, argue that people find it really hard to make choices that will benefit them in the long term when there are so many temptations around to make bad choices. Clever 'choice architecture' can help people overcome these barriers without infringing on individual freedoms. Take gambling:

Here’s an ingenious solution. Over the past decade, several states, including Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, have enacted laws enabling gambling addicts to put themselves on a list that bans them from entering casinos or collecting gambling winnings. The underlying thought is that someone who has self-control problems is aware of her shortcomings and wants to put her Reflective System in control of her Automatic System. Sometimes recreational gamblers can do this on their own or with their friends; sometimes private institutions can help them. But addicted gamblers might do best if they have a way to enlist the support of the state.

Governments, too, have self-control problems when it comes to secrecy. Perhaps Obama has recognised this, and is enlisting the support of the media and the public. (Along the same lines, could you argue that the separation of powers, built into so many democratic constitutions, is the biggest political nudge of all, since it is all about protecting the public against the inability of individuals to control their own desire for power?)

One final note: it is of more than passing interest here that President Obama has appointed Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge, to head the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In fact, Sunstein and Obama go back a long way.