The most important story of the past two weeks was not the visit of Pope Francis to Congress. It was not the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House. It was not the resignation of John Boehner as speaker of the House. It was not the debate over whether a Muslim should be president of the United States. It was not the invasion of Europe by Middle Eastern refugees. It was not even the war between Donald Trump and Fox News.
No, the most important story of the past two weeks, perhaps the most important story of the past seven years, is something you almost certainly never heard anything about.
The most important story you never heard anything about in the mainstream media is when President Obama picked up his fabled pen and signed an executive order on Tuesday, Sept. 15, entitled “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you have just been “Nudged.”
That is a reference to the title of a book by Obama’s former regulatory czar and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein. The full title is “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness” and it was co-written with University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler. The argument of that 2008 book is summed up by the authors thusly:
“People often make poor choices — and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.... A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”
Encouraging people to make “the right choices” is called by Sunstein and Thaler “libertarian paternalism” — in other words, you are free to do what we think is best for you!
The executive order (written by Sunstein?) says that “the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use and respond to those polices and programs.”
It sounds like the government will be changing to respond to what the people want, but in the same paragraph, Obama lets the cat out of the bag — this is really about getting the people to do what the government wants. Listen:
“By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs, enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
In other words, the government is going to get into your head and try to manipulate you into thinking the government is doing a good job when it tells you what to do with your life: Don’t drink soda. Don’t drive a truck. Don’t buy guns. Don’t worry; be happy!
Of course, this is not the first time that government has tried to dominate the rap, Jack, but it has never been so blatant before in its attempt to turn the people into sheeple.
In the old days, there was a certain amount of discretion in the manipulation of public policy. Perhaps the master of this on the public stage was Edward Bernays, the godfather of propaganda who worked for progressive Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Bernays’ daughter Anne described her father’s use of propaganda in politics as a form of “enlightened despotism” and said he feared that “they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above.”
In his 1928 book “Propaganda,” Bernays wrote:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country... We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of...”
That would be even more true under the president’s executive order, which commands all executive departments and agencies to “recruit behavioral science experts to join the Federal Government as necessary to achieve the goals of this directive.”
The president says this team of experts will be “using behavioral science insights” to manipulate the American people, but a much more accessible term is the old one — behavior modification. Read up on one of the best of the behavioral scientists, B.F. Skinner, to learn for yourself how easy it is to get people to do what you want them to do using positive and negative reinforcement — the old carrot and stick approach taken to extremes.
As citizens, even if you agree with the goals of the prevailing liberal philosophy, you really have to ask yourselves if you can stomach the idea of a public policy that is “of the government, by the government and for the government.”
If we are looking for common ground between Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives and liberals, this might be a good place to start.
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake. If you don’t like his opinion, stop by the office and he will gladly refund your two cents. E-mail responses may be sent to email@example.com