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Choosing not to choose.

Choice can be an extraordinary benefit or an immense burden. In some contexts, people choose not to choose, or would do so if they were asked. In part because of limitations of "bandwidth," and in part because of awareness of their own lack of information and potential biases, people sometimes want other people to choose for them. For example, many people prefer not to make choices about their health or retirement plans; they want to delegate those choices to a private or public institution that they trust (and may well be willing to pay a considerable amount to those who are willing to accept such delegations). This point suggests that however well accepted, the line between active choosing and paternalism is often illusory. When private or public institutions override people's desire not to choose and insist on active choosing, they may well be behaving paternalistically, through a form of choice-requiring paternalism. Active choosing can be seen as a form of libertarian paternalism, and a frequently attractive one, if people are permitted to opt out of choosing in favor of a default (and in that sense permitted not to choose); it is a form of nonlibertarian paternalism insofar as people are required to choose. For both ordinary people and private or public institutions, the ultimate judgment in favor of active choosing, or in favor of choosing not to choose, depends largely on the costs of decisions and the costs of errors.

I. Respecting Choice
II. Varieties of Choice
   A. Three Faces of Active Choosing
       1. Direct Penalties
       2. Leveraging
       3. Ordinary Market Arrangements
   B. Institutions as Choice Architects
III. Choice-Requiring Paternalism
   A. Does the Nanny State Forbid Choosing Not to Choose?
   B. Cases
IV. Active Choosing as Choice Architecture
   A. In Defense of Active Choosing
      1. Learning
      2. Overcoming Error-Prone or Ill-Motivated Choice Architects
      3. Handling Changes Over Time
      4. Heterogeneity
      5. Overcoming Inertia
   B. Against Active Choosing (and for Not Choosing)
      1. Which Track?
      2. Burdens on Choosers
      3. Burdens on Providers
      4. Errors
      5. A Brief Accounting
   C. Third Parties
      1. Externalities
      2. Psychology, Responsibility, and Choice
V. Predictive Purchases? Notes on "Big Data"
   A. "The Chief Basis of the Argument for Liberty"?
   B. Experiments
   C. Solutions


Consider the following problems:

1. Public officials are deciding whether to require people, as a condition for obtaining a driver's license, to make an active choice about whether they want to become organ donors. The alternatives are to continue with the existing opt-in system, in which people become organ donors only if they affirmatively indicate their consent, or to change to an opt-out system, in which consent is presumed.

2. A private company is deciding among three options: to enroll people automatically in a health-insurance plan; to make them opt in if they like; or to say that as a condition for starting work, they must indicate whether they want health insurance, and if so, which plan they want.

3. A utility company is deciding whether to adopt for consumers a "green default," with a somewhat more expensive but environmentally preferable energy source, or instead a "gray default," with a somewhat less expensive but environmentally less desirable energy source, or alternatively to ask consumers which energy source they prefer.

4. A social-networking site is deciding whether to adopt a system of default settings for privacy, or instead to require first-time users to specify, as a condition for using the site, which privacy settings they prefer.

5. A state is contemplating a method of making voting more automatic, by allowing people to visit a website, at any time, to indicate that they want to vote for all candidates from one or the other party, and even to say, if they wish, that they would like to continue voting for such candidates until they explicitly indicate otherwise.

6. An online bookseller has compiled a great deal of information about the choices of its customers, and in some cases, it believes that it knows what people want before they know themselves. It is contemplating a system of "predictive shopping," in which it sends people certain books, and charges their credit cards, before they make their wishes known. It is also considering whether to ask people to make an active choice to enroll in a system of predictive shopping, or instead to enroll them automatically.

In these cases, and countless others, an institution is deciding whether to use some kind of default rule or instead to require some kind of active choice. (I shall say a good deal about what the word "require" might mean in this setting.) Default rules tend to be "sticky," and can therefore greatly influence ultimate outcomes; for this reason, they might seem to be a form of objectionable paternalism. For those who reject paternalism and who prize freedom of choice, active choosing has evident appeal. Indeed, it might seem far preferable to any kind of default rule.

In recent years, there have been vigorous debates about freedom of choice, paternalism, behavioral economics, individual autonomy, and the use of defaults. (1) Invoking recent behavioral findings, some people have argued that because human beings err in predictable ways, some kind of paternalism is newly justified, especially if it preserves freedom of choice, as captured in the idea of "libertarian paternalism." (2) Others contend that because of those very errors, some form of coercion is required to promote people's welfare, and that the argument for choice-denying or nonlibertarian paternalism is much strengthened. (3)

At the same time, there have been serious objections to those who invoke behavioral findings to justify paternalism. A plausible objection is that public officials are prone to error as well, and hence an understanding of behavioral biases argues against paternalism, not in favor of it. (4) The "knowledge problem" potentially affects all decisions by government, (5) and behavioral findings seem to compound that problem, because they suggest that identifiable biases will accompany (and aggravate) sheer ignorance. The emerging field of "behavioral public choice" draws attention to that possibility. (6) It might also be objected that on grounds of both welfare and autonomy, active choosing is desirable even if people have a tendency to err. (7) On one view, people should be asked or allowed to choose, whether or not they would choose rightly; perhaps that approach preserves their freedom and recognizes their dignity. For all sides, the opposition between paternalism and active choosing seems stark and plain, and indeed it helps to define all of the existing divisions.

My main goal here is to unsettle that opposition and to suggest that it is often illusory. In many contexts, an insistence on active choosing should be seen as a form of paternalism rather than as an alternative to it. Some people choose not to choose. (8) Sometimes they make that choice explicitly (and indeed are willing to pay a considerable amount to people who will choose for them). Such people have actively chosen not to choose. Other people make no explicit choice; they do not actively choose anything. But it is nonetheless reasonable to infer that, in particular contexts, their preference is not to choose, and that they would say so if asked. They might fear that they will err. They might be aware of their own lack of information (9) or perhaps their own behavioral biases (such as unrealistic optimism (10)). They might find the underlying questions confusing, difficult, painful, and troublesome-empirically, morally, or otherwise. They might not enjoy choosing. They might be busy and lack "bandwidth," (11) and hence might want to devote scarce cognitive resources to other matters. They might not have a preference at all, and they might not want to take the trouble to try to form one. They might not want to take responsibility for potentially bad outcomes for themselves (and at least indirectly for others). (12) They might anticipate their own regret and seek to avoid it. (13) To take just one example, many patients do not want to make, or even to participate in, their own medical decisions, and doctors systematically overestimate their patients' desire to do so. (14)

But even when people prefer not to choose, many private and public institutions favor and promote active choosing on the ground that it is preferable for people to choose. For example, many doctors expect or ask patients to choose, (15) and some states require people to indicate their preferences with respect to organ donation at the time they receive their driver's licenses. To the extent that people are being asked to choose when they would prefer not to do so, active choosing counts as paternalistic. To be sure, nanny states forbid choosing, but they also forbid the choice not to choose. Choice-requiring paternalism might be an attractive form of paternalism, but it is no oxymoron, and it is paternalistic nonetheless.

We shall see that in many cases, those who favor active choosing are actually mandating it, and may therefore be overriding (on paternalistic grounds) people's choice not to choose. (16) When people prefer not to choose, required choosing is paternalistic and a form of coercion. (17) It may nonetheless be the right form, at least when active choosing does not increase the likelihood and magnitude of errors, and when it is important to enable people to learn and to develop their own preferences.

If, by contrast, people are asked whether they want to choose, and can opt out of active choosing (in favor of, say, a default rule), active choosing counts as a form of libertarian paternalism. In some cases, it is an especially attractive form. A company might ask people whether they want to choose the privacy settings on their computer, or instead rely on the default, or whether they want to choose their electricity supplier, or instead rely on the default.

With such an approach, people are being asked to make an active choice between the default and their own preference, and in that sense, their liberty is fully preserved. Call this simplified active choosing. Simplified active choosing has the important advantage of avoiding the kinds of pressure that come from a default rule (18) while also allowing people to rely on such a rule if they like. In the future, we should see, and we should hope to see, adoption of this approach by a large number of institutions, both public and private. For health insurance or protection of privacy, simplified active choosing has evident appeal.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that whenever a private or public institution asks people to choose, it might be overriding their preference not to do so, and in that sense engaging in choice-requiring paternalism. This point applies even when people are being asked whether they want to choose to choose. After all, they might not want to make that second-order choice (and might therefore prefer a simple default rule). Questions can be annoying, and can take up "bandwidth," and when people are asked any question at all, they might not welcome the intrusion. Private and public institutions might favor active choosing for honorable reasons, but when they ask people whether they want to choose, they may well be asking an unwelcome question. In this sense, there is a strong nonlibertarian dimension to apparently liberty-preserving approaches that ask people to choose between active choosing and a default rule. If these claims do not seem self-evident, or if they appear a bit jarring, it is because the idea of active choosing is so familiar, and so obviously appealing, that it may not be seen for what it is: a form of choice architecture, and one that many choosers may dislike, at least in settings that are unfamiliar or difficult. (19)

I also aim to show that whether or not people should favor active choosing, or should instead choose not to choose, depends on a set of identifiable questions, generally involving the costs of decisions and the costs of errors (understood as the number and magnitude of mistakes). (20) If, for example, private or public institutions lack relevant knowledge, are self-interested, or are subject to the pressures imposed by self-interested private groups, there is a strong argument for active choosing, because that approach will reduce the costs of errors. If choosing is a benefit rather than a cost because people enjoy it, there is a further reason for active choosing. By hypothesis, the decision to choose is a benefit, and in such cases, people should choose to choose. But if the area is complex, technical, unfamiliar, and novel, there is a strong argument against active choosing, because that approach will increase decision costs and potentially error costs as well. Another question is whether people believe that choosing is intrinsically desirable or not. (21) Often they do, but choosing not to choose is itself a form of choice, and perhaps an active (and intrinsically desirable (22)) one.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of heterogeneity here, both across persons and across contexts. (23) Some people in some contexts would be willing to pay a premium to have the power to choose themselves, other things being equal; other people in other contexts would be willing to pay a premium to have someone else choose for them, other things being equal. (24) (Some people like choosing wine, while other people hate it; the same is true for retirement plans and for cell phones. In both contexts, it matters a great deal whether people have an antecedent preference for particular wines or particular plans or particular cell phones.) People tend to have an intuitive appreciation of these points and to incorporate them into their judgments about whether and when to choose. An investigation of particular areas often reveals both the force and the weakness of the argument for active choosing. Many restaurants, for example, do best with a large menu, offering people diverse items, but tourists in unfamiliar nations may well prefer a default menu-a difference that reflects the costs of decisions and the costs of errors. An interesting question is whether, in identifiable contexts, people are too willing (for example, because of overconfidence), or insufficiently willing (for example, because of excessive trust in certain institutions), to choose. Further empirical research would be extremely valuable on that question.

At first glance, it seems that the choice between active choosing and some kind of default rule, based on decision costs and error costs, should be made by people themselves, at least if the interests of third parties are not involved. If choosers choose not to choose, or if that is what they would choose if asked, their choice (even if imputed rather than explicit) should generally be respected. To that extent, choice-requiring paternalism should be avoided. Unless there is some kind of market failure, including a behavioral market failure (such as "present bias," meaning an emphasis on the short-term and a neglect of the future), (25) private and public institutions should not insist on active choosing when people prefer not to choose (just as they should not insist on a default rule when people prefer active choosing).

An important qualification is that the argument for active choosing gains strength when learning and the development of values and preferences are important. (26) In such cases, choice requiring paternalism might have real appeal. This point raises a significant cautionary note about any program that defaults people into goods or services on the basis of their own previous choices-a seemingly attractive approach that might nonetheless prove an obstacle to learning and to what we might consider a form of self-expansion, and even autonomy, by people in their roles as both consumers and citizens. In such cases, choice-requiring paternalism has strong justifications. As we shall see, some evidence, which I present here, suggests that people have an intuitive appreciation of this point as well.

The remainder of this Article is organized as follows. Part II explores how, and in what settings, active choosing might be required. Part III draws attention to choice-requiring paternalism and shows that it is not a contradiction in terms. It explains that when people choose not to choose, required active choosing counts as a form of paternalism, one that runs into both welfare-based and autonomy-based arguments in favor of freedom of choice (including the choice not to choose). Part IV investigates why active choosing may or may not be desirable from the point of view of both choosers and choice architects (understood as the people who design default rules and other aspects of the background against which choices are made (27)). Part V offers a brief note on "big data," predictive shopping, and presumed choice. It presents some empirical findings, including a nationally representative survey, suggesting considerable public ambivalence about predictive shopping, with both significant support and significant opposition. It also suggests that in ordinary market contexts, the best argument for active choosing is that choosers know best what they want, but that with the rise of big data, sellers may have equally good information, potentially supporting the otherwise objectionable idea of default purchases.


Many of those who embrace active choosing believe that consumers of goods and services should be free from government influence. (28) Of course, proponents of active choosing recognize that in markets, producers will impose influences of multiple kinds, but they nonetheless contend that when third parties are not affected, and when force and fraud are not involved, government should remain neutral. They reject paternalism on government's part. (29) Perhaps it is legitimate for public officials to require the provision of accurate information so as to ensure that consumers' choices are adequately informed. But if government seeks to "nudge" (30) people in its preferred directions in other ways-by imposing default rules or embracing paternalism of any kind-it is exceeding its appropriate bounds.

But what does active choosing entail? (31) What does it mean to "require" people to indicate their preferences?

A. Three Faces of Active Choosing

Those who insist on the inevitability of default rules will object that there is no good answer to the latter question. Even if choice architects seek to promote active choosing, they have to specify what happens if people simply refuse to choose. Isn't the answer some kind of default rule?

The question is the right one, because some kind of default rule is ultimately necessary. Choice architects have to establish what happens if people decline to choose. But we can nonetheless identify three different ways that active choosing might be required. For shorthand, we can refer to them as direct penalties, leveraging, and ordinary market arrangements; each raises its own complexities. Only government can impose direct penalties, but leveraging and ordinary market arrangements are available to both private and public institutions.

1. Direct Penalties. In most contexts, no one contends that if people fail to make a choice, they should be imprisoned or otherwise punished. The sanction for that failure is that they do not receive a good or service (see Parts II.A.2 and II.A.3 below). But there are exceptions. In some nations, including Australia, Belgium, and (before 1970) the Netherlands, people have been subject to civil sanctions if they fail to vote, (32) and in that sense punished for refusing to make an active choice. So too, the Affordable Care Act requires people to make a choice about health insurance, subject to economic penalties if they fail to do so. (33)

With respect to active choosing, both of these examples do have a wrinkle: people are being forced to choose along one dimension (for whom to vote and which health-insurance plan to obtain), but are being prohibited from choosing along another dimension (whether to vote or to obtain health insurance). But insofar as one kind of choice is being required, we may fairly speak of required active choosing. We could imagine other contexts in which people would face sanctions if they did not choose, though admittedly such cases look more like science fiction than the real world. Consider cases in which people must decide whether to become organ donors (or face criminal penalties) or must choose privacy settings on their computer (subject to civil sanctions if they do not). The fact that sanctions are rarely imposed on those who choose not to choose might be taken to suggest an implicit recognition that in a free society, such choices are generally acceptable and indeed a legitimate part of consumer sovereignty. One reason involves information: people know best what they want, and others should not choose for them, even if the choice is not to choose. (34)

2. Leveraging. In some cases, choice architects require active choosing with respect to a related or ancillary matter as a condition of obtaining a good or service (or a job). It is in this sense that a form of leveraging is involved. Active choosing is mandatory, but in a distinctive sense: unless people make an active choice on some matter, they cannot obtain a good or service, even though that good or service, narrowly defined, is not the specific topic of the choice that they are being asked to make. (35) We can imagine a continuum of connections between the matter in question (for which an active choice is being required) and the specific good that has already been chosen. There would be a close connection if, for example, people were told that unless they indicated their preferences with respect to car insurance, they could not rent a car. So too, there would be a close connection if people were told that unless they created a password, or indicated their preferences with respect to privacy settings, they could not use their computer. And indeed, both of these kinds of cases are standard. In markets, sellers sometimes insist that purchasers make an active choice on some related matter in order to obtain or use a product.

By contrast, there would be a weaker connection if people were informed that they could not work with a particular employer until they indicated their preferences with respect to their retirement plan. The connection would be weaker still if people were told that they could not obtain a driver's license unless they indicated their preferences with respect to organ donation. The connection would be even weaker if people were told that they could not register to vote unless they specified their preferred privacy settings on their computer.

In the final two examples-and especially the last-there is not a close connection between the matter on which people are being asked to make a choice and the good that they are specifically seeking. (36) In cases of this kind, the choice architect is requiring an active choice on a matter that is genuinely ancillary. Note that in some cases that fall into this category, the requirement of active choosing has a strongly coercive dimension insofar as the good in question is one that people cannot easily reject (such as a driver's license, a job, or a right to vote). It is in this sense that the choice architect is, in effect, leveraging that good to ensure an active choice on some other matter.

In terms of evaluation, we might want to distinguish between public and private institutions here. Perhaps private institutions, disciplined as they are by market forces, should freely compete along this dimension as along others. Perhaps public institutions should think long and hard before requiring people to choose, unless there is a close connection between the good or service in question and the object of active choice. But we should not be dogmatic here. If a public institution is requiring people to choose in order to save lives, and if its strategy is effective, we should hesitate before concluding that it has acted illegitimately.

3. Ordinary Market Arrangements. In most markets, active choosing among goods, services, or jobs is a condition for obtaining a good, a service, or a job. For consumption decisions in ordinary markets, people are usually given a range of options, and they can choose one or more of them, or none at all. Unless they make a choice, they will not obtain the relevant good or service. They are not defaulted into purchasing tablets, cell phones, shoes, or fishing poles. Indeed, this is the standard pattern. When people visit a website, a restaurant, or a grocery or appliance store, they are generally asked to make an active choice. The default--understood as what happens if they do nothing--is that no product will be purchased. People do not receive goods or services unless they have actively chosen them. The same point holds for the employment market. People are typically not defaulted into particular jobs, at least not in any formal sense. They have a range of options, and unless they take one, they will be unemployed. In this respect, free markets generally require active choosing.

There is nothing inevitable about this situation. We could imagine a situation in which sellers assume, or presume, that people want certain products, and in which buyers obtain them, and have to pay for them, passively. Imagine, for example, that a bookseller has sufficient information to know, for a fact, that Johnson would want to buy any new book by Stephen King, Amartya Sen, Sendhil Mullainathan, or Joyce Carol Oates, or that Smith would like to purchase a new version of a particular tablet, or that Winston would want to buy a certain pair of sneakers, or that when McMurtry runs out of toothpaste, he would like new toothpaste of exactly the same kind. If the sellers' judgments are unerring, or even nearly so, would it be troublesome and intrusive, or instead a great benefit, for them to arrange the relevant purchases by default? Existing technology is increasingly raising this question. (37)

There is a good argument that the strongest reason to require active choosing is that reliable predictive shopping algorithms do not exist, and hence active choosing is an indispensable safeguard against erroneous purchases. If they are not entirely accurate, predictive algorithms might not serve the interests of those who might be denominated purchasers (by default). On this view, the argument for active choosing is rooted in the view that affirmative consent protects against mistakes--which leaves open the possibility of "predictive shopping" if and when a reliable technology becomes available. To the extent that such technology does not exist, predictive shopping would be unacceptable. I will return to these issues in Part V.

To these general claims, the major qualification is that some institution--usually the law--has already given people rights of a certain kind, and what that institution has already supplied determines what people will later need to buy in markets. Markets require a background set of entitlements, establishing what people have and do not have, before they begin to choose. Individual choosers did not select those entitlements, which are given rather than chosen (and the selection might reflect a form of paternalism).

For example, people might have some kind of "default entitlement" to sue for age discrimination, a right that they can waive for a price; (38) some entitlements of this kind (such as the right to sue for discrimination on the basis of race and sex) are not waivable, in the sense that no waiver would be legally valid. (39) Because people's preferences may be affected by decisions about background entitlements, (40) a form of paternalism may be difficult or perhaps impossible to avoid insofar as some person or institution is making those decisions. (41) If people's preferences are an artifact of entitlements, we cannot select entitlements by asking about those preferences. But with background entitlements in place, people usually do not obtain goods or services unless they have actively chosen them (putting gifts to one side).

B. Institutions as Choice Architects

As the examples suggest, both private and public institutions might choose leveraging or ordinary market arrangements, though of course only government can impose direct penalties. It should be clear that active choosing is far from inevitable. Instead of imposing active choosing, an institution might select some kind of default rule, specifying what happens if people do nothing. (42)

For example, those who obtain driver's licenses might be defaulted into being organ donors, or those who start work with a particular employer might be defaulted into a specific retirement or health-care plan. Alternatively, those who make an active choice to purchase a particular product--say, a book or a subscription to a magazine--might be enrolled into a program by which they continue to receive a similar product periodically, whether or not they have made an active choice to do that. The Book-of-the-Month Club famously employed a strategy of this sort. (43)

An active choice to purchase a product might also produce a default rule that is unrelated to the product--as, for example, where purchase of a particular book automatically enrolled someone in a health-care plan, or where an active choice to enroll in a health-care plan produced default enrollment in a book club. In extreme cases, where disclosure is insufficiently clear, an approach of this kind might be a form of fraud, though we could also imagine cases in which such an approach would actually track people's preferences. Suppose, for example, that a private institution knows that people who purchase product X (say, certain kinds of music) also tend to like product Y (say, certain kinds of books). Suggestions of various kinds, default advertisements, default presentations of political views, and perhaps even default purchases could be welcome and beneficial, unfamiliar though the link might seem. For example, the website Pandora tracks users' music preferences, from which it can make some inferences about likely tastes and judgments about other matters, including politics. (44)

We could also imagine cases in which people are explicitly asked to choose whether they want to choose. (45) Consumers might be asked: Do you want to choose your cell-phone settings, or do you want to be defaulted into settings that seem to work best for most people, or for people like you? Do you want to choose your own health-insurance plan, or do you want to be defaulted into the plan that seems best for people in your demographic category? In such cases, many people may well decide in favor of a default rule, and thus decline to choose, because of a second-order desire not to do so. They might not trust their own judgment; they might not want to learn. The topic might make them anxious. They might have better things to do.

This approach--simplified active choosing, in the form of active choosing with the option of using a default--has considerable promise and appeal, not least because it avoids many of the influences contained in a default rule, (46) and might therefore seem highly respectful of autonomy while also allowing people to select the default. For cell-phone settings or health-insurance plans, active choosers can actively select a particular option if they like, while others can (actively) choose the default. Note, however, that simplified active choosing is not quite a perfect solution, at least for those people who genuinely do not want to choose. After all, they are being asked to do exactly that. At least some of those people likely do not want to have to choose between active choosing and a default rule, and hence they would prefer a default rule to an active choice between active choosing and a default rule. Even that active choice can be costly and time-consuming, and some or many people might not want to bother. In this respect, supposedly libertarian paternalism, in the form of an active choice between active choosing and a default, itself has a strong nonlibertarian dimension--a conclusion that brings us directly to the next section.


A. Does the Nanny State Forbid Choosing Not to Choose?

Is it paternalistic to require active choosing, when people would prefer not to choose? To answer that question, we have to start by defining paternalism. There is of course an immensely large literature on that question. (47) Let us bracket the hardest questions and note that while diverse definitions have been given, it seems clear that the unifying theme of paternalistic approaches is that private or public institutions do not believe that people's choices will promote their own welfare, and they are taking steps to influence or alter people's choices for their own good. (48)

What is wrong with paternalism, thus defined? Those who reject paternalism typically invoke welfare, autonomy, or both. (49) They tend to believe that individuals are the best judges of their own interests, and of what would promote their welfare, and that outsiders should decline to intervene because they lack crucial information. (50) John Stuart Mill himself contended that this is the essential problem with outsiders, including government officials. Emphasizing the importance of avoiding paternalism on explicitly welfarist grounds, Mill insisted that the individual "is the person most interested in his own well-being," (51) and that the "ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else." (52) When society seeks to overrule the individual's judgment, it does so on the basis of "general presumptions," and these "may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases." (53) Mill's goal was to ensure that people's lives go well, and he contended that the best solution is for public officials to allow people to find their own path. (54) Consider in this regard Hayek's remarkable suggestion that "the awareness of our irremediable ignorance of most of what is known to somebody [who is a planner] is the chief basis of the argument for liberty." (55)

It is clear that this is an argument about welfare, grounded in a claim about the superior information held by individuals. But there is an independent argument from autonomy, (56) which emphasizes that even if people do not know what is best for them, and even if they would choose poorly, they are entitled to do as they see fit (at least as long as harm to others, or some kind of collective-action problem, is not involved). On this view, freedom of choice has intrinsic and not merely instrumental value. It is an insult to individual dignity, and a form of infantilization, to eliminate people's ability to go their own way. (57)

Whether or not these objections to paternalism are convincing, (58) there are legitimate questions about whether and how they apply to people whose choice is not to choose. On reflection, they apply quite well, and so choice-requiring paternalism is no oxymoron. People might decline to choose for multiple reasons. They might believe that they lack information or expertise. They might fear that they will err. They might not enjoy the act of choosing; they might like it better if someone else decides for them. They might not want to incur the emotional costs of choosing, especially for situations that are painful or difficult to contemplate (such as organ donation or end-of-life care). They might find it a relief, (59) or even fun, to delegate. They might not want to take responsibility." They might be too busy. (61) They might not want to pay the psychological costs associated with regretting their choice. (62): Active choosing saddles choosers with responsibility for their choices, and it may reduce their welfare for that reason.

In daily life, people defer to others, including friends and family members, on countless matters, and they are often better off as a result. In ordinary relationships, people benefit from the functional equivalent of default rules, some explicitly articulated, others not. Within a marriage, for example, certain decisions (such as managing finances or planning dinners or vacations) might be made by the husband or wife by default, subject to the right to opt out in particular circumstances. That practice has close analogues in many contexts in which people are dealing with private or public institutions and choose not to choose. Indeed, people are often willing to pay others a great deal to make their choices for them. But even when there is no explicit payment or grant of the power of agency, people might well prefer a situation in which they are relieved of the obligation to choose, because such relief will reduce decision costs, error costs, or both.

Suppose, for example, that Jones believes that he is not likely to make a good choice about his retirement plan, and that he would therefore prefer a default rule, chosen by someone who is a specialist in the subject at hand. In Mill's terms, doesn't Jones know best? Or suppose that Smith is exceedingly busy, and wants to focus on her most important concerns, not on which health-insurance plan is right for her or which privacy setting she should use on her computer. Doesn't Mill's argument support respect for Smith's choice? In such cases, the welfarist arguments seem to favor deference to the chooser's choice, even if that choice is not to choose. If we believe in freedom of choice on the ground that people are uniquely situated to know what is best for them, (63) then that very argument should support respect for people when they freely choose not to choose.

Or suppose that Harper, exercising his or her autonomy, decides to delegate decisionmaking authority to someone else, and thus to relinquish the power to choose, in a context that involves health insurance, energy providers, privacy, or credit-card plans. Is it an insult to Harper's dignity, or instead a way of honoring it, if a private or public institution refuses to respect that choice? It is at least plausible to suppose that respect for autonomy requires respect for people's decisions about whether and when to choose. That view seems especially reasonable in view of the fact that people are in a position to make countless decisions, and they might well decide that they would like to exercise their autonomy by focusing on their foremost concerns, not on what seems trivial, boring, or difficult. (64) With respect to medical care, note in this connection that "a substantial number of" studies find that patients "do not want to make their own medical decisions, or perhaps even to participate in those decisions in any very significant way." (65)

These points raise a broader question: In general, are people genuinely bothered by the existence of default rules, or would they be bothered if they were made aware that such rules had been chosen for them? We do not have a full answer to this question; the setting, and the level of trust, undoubtedly matter. But note in this regard the empirical finding, in the context of end-of-life care, that when people are explicitly informed that a default rule is in place, and that it has been chosen because it affects their decisions, there is essentially no effect on what people do. This finding suggests that people are not uncomfortable with defaults as such. (66)

To be sure, we could imagine hard cases in which a choice not to choose seems to be an alienation of freedom. In the extreme case, people might choose to be slaves or otherwise to relinquish their liberty, in the sense of their choice-making power, in some fundamental way. (67) In a less extreme case, people might choose not to vote, not in the sense of failing to show up at the polls, but in the sense of (formally) delegating their vote to others. Such delegations are impermissible, (68) perhaps because they would undo the internal logic of a system of voting (in part by creating a collective-action problem that a prohibition on vote-selling solves (69)), but perhaps also because individuals would be relinquishing their own freedom to govern themselves. Or perhaps people might choose not to make choices with respect to their religious convictions, or their future spouse, (70) and might instead delegate those choices to others. In cases that involve central features of people's lives, we might conclude that freedom of choice cannot be alienated and that the relevant decisions must be made by the individuals themselves. It is a complex question which cases fall into this category. (71) But even if the category is fairly large, it cannot easily be taken as a general objection to the proposition that on autonomy grounds, people should be allowed not to choose in multiple domains.

It is important to acknowledge that the choice not to choose may not be in the chooser's interest (as the chooser would define it). For that reason, choice-requiring paternalism might have a welfarist justification. Perhaps the chooser chooses not to choose only because he lacks important information (which would reveal that the default rule is harmful), underestimates the value of learning, or suffers from some form of bounded rationality. A behavioral market failure (understood as a nonstandard market failure that comes from human error (72)) might infect a choice not to choose, just as it might infect a choice about what to choose.

A non-chooser might, for example, be unduly affected by "availability bias," because of an overreaction to a recent situation in which his own choice went wrong. (73) Or perhaps the chooser is myopic and is excessively influenced by the short-term costs of choosing, which might require some learning (and hence some investment), while underestimating the long-term benefits, which might be very large. A form of "present bias" (74) might infect the decision not to choose. People might face a kind of intrapersonal collective-action problem, in which such a decision by Jones, at Time 1, turns out to be welfare-reducing for Jones at Times 2, 3, 4, and 5.

But for those who reject paternalism, these kinds of concerns are usually a justification for providing more and better information-not for blocking people's choices, including their choices not to choose. In these respects, the welfarist objections to paternalism seem to apply as well to those who insist on active choosing. Of course welfarists might be wrong to object to paternalism. (75) But with respect to their objections, the question is whether the choice not to choose is, in general or in particular contexts, likely to go wrong, and in the abstract, there is no reason to think that this particular choice would be especially error-prone. In light of people's tendency to overconfidence, the choice not to choose might even be peculiarly likely to be right, which would create serious problems for choice-requiring paternalism. (76)

Consider in this regard evidence that people spend too much time trying to make precisely the right choice, in a way that leads to significant welfare losses. In many situations, people underestimate the temporal costs of choosing and exaggerate the benefits, producing "systematic mistakes in predicting the effect of having more, vs. less, choice freedom on task performance and task-induced affect." (77) If people make such systematic mistakes, it stands to reason that they might well choose to choose in circumstances in which they ought not do so on welfarist grounds.

My aim is not to say that welfarists are right to reject paternalism; (78) it is only to say that the underlying arguments apply to all forms of paternalism, including those that would interfere with the decision not to choose. To be sure, some welfarists are willing to interfere with people's choices; they may well be libertarian or nonlibertarian paternalists. (79) The central points are that the standard welfarist arguments on behalf of freedom of choice apply to those who (freely) choose not to choose, and that those who want to interfere with such choices might well be paternalists. And from the standpoint of autonomy, interference with the choice not to choose can be paternalistic as well, and therefore objectionable to those who reject paternalism, unless it is fairly urged that that choice counts as some kind of alienation of freedom (as in the case of slavery and arguable analogues, discussed above (80)).
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Title Annotation:Abstract through III. Choice-Requiring Paternalism A. Does the Nanny State Forbid Choosing Not to Choose?, p. 1-25
Author:Sunstein, Cass R.
Publication:Duke Law Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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