A Government of Social and Behavioral “Nudges”


On September 15, 2015, Barack Obama signed an Executive Order with the intent on implementing “Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” The Executive Order (EO) is based on a “growing body of evidence demonstrating that behavioral science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people.”

Furthermore, the EO continues, “Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights, they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve. For example, automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans have made it easier to save for the future, and have helped Americans accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings. Similarly, streamlining the application process for Federal financial aid has made college more financially accessible for millions of students.”

As innocuous as this may sound, the EO is entirely based on the principles, ideas, and concepts developed by the radical behaviorist Cass Sunstein. Sunstein was appointed administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) by Obama back in 2009. While Sunstein resigned in late 2012, his influence was enormous as he was given unprecedented power in reviewing nearly every federal regulation that was passed while he was in office. For example, he reviewed the rules implementing Obamacare as well as the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law. He backed and re-wrote major environmental initiatives, including higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and new toxic emissions rules for power plants.

Sunstein reviewed nearly everything in the vast administrative state while his power was much more significant in dealing with under-the-radar rules and regulations that often went unnoticed. As The New York Times  describes him, ” he wielded enormous power as the White House overseer of federal regulation, [who] came to Washington to test his theories of human behavior and economic efficiency in the laboratory of the federal government.” The Times continues, “He reviewed every regulation proposed by every executive agency.”

Even though he is no longer in office, his influence is evident as the first two examples given in Obama’s EO come from Sunstein and are explained in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Furthermore, his works are cited numerous times in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team Annual Report that was released in conjunction with the Executive Order. The second paragraph of Obama’s EO cites the concepts developed in Sunstein’s “Nudge” by explaining the core role plaid by behavioral insights in developing federal policies. This idea is that the government, using social and behavioral sciences, can design and implement policies in a way that “nudges” citizens towards certain behaviors and choices to advance the goals of the adminstration and the federal government.

As Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller explains in a perfect example of one of these “nudges”, Obama’s federal health care law, Obamacare, was replete with “nudge” language and experimentation which was brought to light in the debate of whether the individual mandate contained in the law was a tax hike. While Republicans insisted that it was a tax increase, the White House portrayed it as a penalty on the logic that the word “tax” had a negative connotation. The result of this that Americans are now forced to buy overly expensive healthcare plans as defined by politically appointed experts such as Kathleen Sebelius and Jonathan Gruber. If you fail to be nudged into buying their plans, you are assessed an ever increasing annual tax or fine.

The current example of a “nudge” is the administrations push to change our gun culture in wake of the Umpqua Community College Shooting. Seen from the standpoint of Sunstein, in order to reduce gun violence in America he has suggested that Americans must be “nudged” in a way that changes how we behave as a culture. Approaching the question on how this is to be done, Sunstein writes that society must view the gun owner as not a rational actor but as a “befuddled character, bedeviled by impulses and sentiments,” while the Second Amendment must be disregarded “as an obstacle”  in the way of “U.S. gun control legislation.” Echoing this sentiment during his fundraising trip to Hollywood this weekend, Obama stated that in regards to his visit to Oregon on Friday, “there were some folks who were protesting about their Second Amendment rights as they understood them.”

This was a subtle remark aimed at those who were protesting Obama’s visit to Oregon by practicing their Second Amendment rights as they viewed Obama’s visit as nothing more than an attempt to politicize the tragedy that took place a week earlier at the community college. The underlying assumption made by Obama in which he dismisses those protesting about their Second Amendment rights as “they understood them” is quite profound in that it shows how Obama doesn’t regard this right as being universally acknowledged by all Americans. The goal here though is to not only politicize those Americans who have practice their right to keep and bear arms by claiming they’re nothing more than a minority but to also nudge all Americans towards accepting heavily regulated restrictions on guns with the justification of the government keeping us all safe.

One of the groups they are “keeping us safe from” are in fact military veterans who are consistently deprived of due process while having their guns taken away for unconstitutional reasons. This was brought to light in a letter drafted by Senator Chuck Grassley sent to then acting Attorney General Eric Holder on April 13th wanting to know why tens of thousands of military veterans were routinely and unfairly blocked from owning guns. Grassley points out that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) made the decisions based on Veterans who require bookkeeping services, a standard which was used as an end-run around the gun control law. As Grassley explains in his letter, “All federal agencies are required to report names of individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System’s (NICS) ‘mental defective’ category. Placement on the list prohibits owning or possessing a firearm. The legal standard by which a name is supposed to be reported to the ‘mental defective’ category is whether the individuals are a danger to themselves or others. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) process does not support such findings. Instead VA reports individuals to the gun ban list if an individual merely needs financial assistance managing VA benefits. Although the VA process is not designed to regulate firearm ownership, it results in veterans and their loved ones being barred from exercising their fundamental, Constitutionally-guaranteed Second Amendment rights.”

Yet, keeping guns out of the hands of our veterans by giving the VA the ability to redefine who is and isn’t a threat to themselves or others was merely the first step in Obama’s agenda to re-shape how we view the Second Amendment. The plan is to go after anyone who has had a domestic dispute, beginning with those who have been convicted of a misdemeanor. The end goal is to restrict any gun use by a person who has a friend, a family member, a colleague, a neighbor or a doctor who thinks they are at risk. According to the Obama administration’s Spring 2015 “Unified Agenda”–published May 22–the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) announced that they will be pushing a number of new gun control rules for implementation by executive fiat. For example, here are just two of the following numerous sets of rules that are going to be implemented by executive fiat:

RIN: 1140-AA04 — will expand persons barred from gun ownership and possession by including “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as grounds for forfeiting the right to “ship, transport, possess, or receive in or affecting commerce firearms or ammunition.” It would also make it “unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of a firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the recipient has been convicted of such a misdemeanor.”

RIN: 1140-AA47 — broadens the number of people barred from gun possession by expanding the ATF’s mental health provisions on background checks by preventing the mentally ill from owning firearms, which past cases they have taken guns from people for merely taking sleep medications or seeing a psychologist.

Among the most controversial proposals though, the collection of vast and extensive data on all gun owners and gun transactions is the true aim of Obama’s agenda. If you combine this collection of data with the notion that the president is going to make it easier for the government to diagnose citizens as mentally ill, such as he’s done in the VA, he will have the ability to suspend a constitutional right based upon your health record. This is much more concerning given whom the recently appointed Surgeon General is and his stance on gun control.

In March of this year, Vivek Murthy was sworn in as Surgeon General after being confirmed in a lame-duck 51-43 vote in December of 2014 before the republican controlled congress took over in January. The reason his confirmation was pushed before the republicans gained controlled of both the House and Senate was due to the fact that Murthy is the President and Co-Founder of the radical progressive group Doctors for America. The group, formerly known as Doctors for Obama, outlined what they would like to see happen to gun owners in order to develop a comprehensive national plan to stop gun violence. In a letter drafted by Murthy to members of Congress in 2013, he recommends the following ways in which gun violence should be addressed:

  • Remove military-style guns and ammunition that are designed to be able to kill large numbers of people quickly. Specific approaches should include: A federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition – to stop weapons from being added to the existing stock. Buyback programs – to reduce the number of military-style weapons that are currently in circulation
  • Strengthen safety measures and regulations for guns used for hunting, sport, and self-protection. Every state requires a driver’s license and car registration in order to drive, and physicians certify those who should no longer drive because they would be a grave danger to themselves and others. We should approach the purchase, transfer, and operation of guns and ammunition with similar rigor.
  • Specific approaches should include: Universal background checks and licenses for anyone purchasing guns and ammunition – including mandatory firearm safety training and testing and regulation of private sales and transfers of guns and ammunition.
  • Remove prohibitions and barriers that keep health professionals from protecting our patients from harm. Gun violence is an area where both state and federal policies have prohibited us from doing our job. Research shows that having a gun at home markedly increases risk of injury and suicide
  • Specific approaches should include: Prohibit laws preventing physicians from discussing gun safety with patients. Remove the provision in the Affordable Care Act and other federal policies that prohibit physicians from documenting gun ownership.

Now that Murthy is the Surgeon General, he can actively use his position to promote gun violence as a health issue and enact a sort of backdoor gun control that gets at the core of reshaping how America views gun violence, specifically in a way that those like Cass Sunstein could only have dreamed. That dream primarily being the ability of the government to breakdown and erode some of the powerful institutional and cultural tools we have to protect ourselves from the instinct to “nudge” other people through the instrumentalities of the state. As Sunstein argues, “People are sometimes bad choosers, making their lives worse. In some cases, public officials are in an excellent position to help.”

“But the human desire to help,” responds Steven Teles of The American Interest, “can very easily shade over into the desire to rule—in other words, to move from benevolence toward social authoritarianism.” By combining the principles of science and compassion, which is precisely what Obama’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team is doing, they conceal the fact that what they’re doing is justifying the exercise of power with no limit. Teles writes, “A government of nudges is opposed to any constitutional principles governing where it may and may not act, because it views all such questions as empirical in nature and thus not subject to being cabined before the fact. It acts, for the most part, in relatively small ways, but over a huge, sprawling canvas. It prefers to be organized technocratically and wants to create islands of expert governance insulated as much as possible.”

In short, a government of “nudges” envisioned by those of likes of Sunstein and created by Obama, is a government that disregards the free will of the individual to make their own choices. It brings to mind a government described by George Orwell in Animal Farm as he wrote, “No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

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