Big Brother Behavior Mod

You’ve seen in some of the news media reports on a new Federal government team designed to facilitate the government’s ability to persuade us to do various things it thinks appropriate for us.  The team being formed to spearhead this effort is colloquially called a “Nudge Team” because it’s ostensibly intended only to suggest to us better, more efficient ways to achieve goals.

As you might expect, I have some thoughts on this.

The formative document is called, interestingly enough, “Strengthening Federal Capacity for Behavioral Insights,” and it has this illuminating statement in the opening paragraph:

In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which through a process of rapid, iterative experimentation (“Test, Learn, Adapt”), has successfully identified and tested interventions that will further advance priorities of the British government….

Notice that: advance government priorities, not those of a Sovereign citizen.  The next paragraph fleshes this out:

The federal government is currently creating a new team that will help…scale behavioral interventions that have been rigorously evaluated, using, where possible, randomized controlled trials.

The government intends to engage in “behavioral interventions” to “persuade” us to their (more efficiently achieved) goals.

But wait—isn’t that just ordinary advertising, something every business man, from a one-man home office business to the GEs and Bank of Americas, does to get us to buy their products?

Investor’s Business Daily talks about the government not having a clear idea of what is “good for us” (never minding the primacy of the government’s goals for us), that the government can’t be trusted to stop at any particular point—the slippery slope concern—and the (subtle at first) loss of our individual liberties as the government gets this sort of program rolling along.

IBD is right on all counts, but it’s that last that’s most important of the three.  And that leads me to my concerns.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising when businesses or individuals do this.  It is, after all, limited to more or less friendly persuasion.  We’re also free to walk away from it at any time, whether by changing the channel, hitting the mute button, turning the page in our magazine or newspaper, or closing the door on the salesman.

Not so much when it’s the government doing the “advertising.”  Government has too many ways to suggest that we heed its blandishments, from the way it “guides” potential contractors in its project notices, or “encourages” folks to get onto its food stamp program, all the way up to, and including, enemies lists and open assaults by Federal agencies on organizations that disagree with the government.

Along with that is a concept that’s being lost in modern America (and which loss facilitates government dominance of our activities): not everything done in the private sector is appropriate for the government to do also.  More strongly than that, most things done in the private sector are wholly inappropriate for government to do.  When the government does engage in what is for the private sector, freedom is put in peril.

One source of the risk is that government tends, in the end, not to do alongside private individuals or enterprises the things that we do, but to do those things instead.  This isn’t because government can do these things more efficiently.  Rather, it’s because government can do them more cheaply than the private sector: government can—must—do this with OPM, with taxpayer money.  From the beginnings of this crowding out, government winds up saying to us, “No need for you to do these things; we’ve got this.”  From there it’s a short step to, “Butt out.  This is government business.”  It’s a (subtle, but the more insidious for that) threat to our liberty.

Nudge team “persuasion” is on that latter list; it’s wholly inappropriate for our government to involve itself in such a thing.  Especially given the avowed behavior modification aspect of it.

The government’s central…Nudge Team…document can be seen here and here.

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