Bryan Caplan  

Nudge and Abortion Followup

Huemer Symposium at BHL... Looking Out the Window: Costs ...
"Nudge and Abortion" has sparked a lively Twitter debate.  Leigh Caldwell has most thoughtful reaction:

Leigh: but: 's arg holds IF his preference premise is true. Regretting NEVER having kids != regretting an abortion

My response to Leigh: I didn't bring up the regret of the childless to show that women regret abortions.  The two claims are indeed quite different.  I brought up the regret of the childless to rebut the objection that people's ex post assessment of their childbearing outcomes simply reflects status quo bias.  There really is an asymmetry: Buyer's remorse is rare, non-buyer's remorse is common.

In any case, I can easily streamline my preference premise.  Key claim: Women who want abortions often expect having the child to be a disaster, even though women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term very rarely see it that way.  This big divergence between ex ante assumption and ex post experience is a golden opportunity for nudging to ultimately make people better off in their own eyes.

To repeat, I oppose government nudging (except cutting government spending, if that counts).  But I'd think that friends of government nudging would welcome my suggestions.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
shecky writes:

I have a feeling people are wired to react in a buyer's remorse is rare, non-buyer's remorse is common way to just about any choice after the fact. I'm curious to see how buyer's remorse would play out in other areas. Social Security? Medicare? All-out socialized medicine?

Chris Andesron writes:

I'm still against the whole idea of nudging. Although it's not the same as law, you are still acting to impose your will on other people and trying to tell them what is best for them.

Take fast food, we know that it's bad for you. So why don't we "nudge" people to forego it? We could have:

1) A waiting period. When you order fast food it will take 1 day to arrive, to give people time to reconsider their decision.

2) An opt-out rule for nutrition advice. All people who want fast food would have an appointment scheduled with a nutritionist, which they would have to explicitly refuse.

3) Inconvenient locations. Any fast food outlet must be at least 5 miles from densely populated areas.

4) Deny tax breaks to fast food companies! (OK, I actually like this one)

My point is, you can't legislate morality, or even nudge it. The nudging of abortion raises all sorts of problems. Some may say that abortion is much more of a contentious issue than fast food, since they amount it to murder, but it's no more murder than the slaughter of cows to serve your speedy meat needs.

DougT writes:

@ChrisAnderson: equating abortion and meat-eating is exactly the kind of moral insensitivity that makes religious conservatives suspicious of libertarians.

As a (primarily) religious conservative I am highly suspicious of *all* government nudges. Registration and licensing is a nudge that can easily be used to stifle religious speech we do not like, and the State frequently does not like religious speech. It appeals to an authority independent of the State, which most States find inimical.

We legislate morality all the time. Enforcement of contracts and protecting property rights are entirely consistent with the 9th commandment; murder is prohibited by the 6th.

The question is whether the unborn are worthy of certain protections. If they are not, then many things (like fetal experimentation or abortion as a tool of genetic screening) that many find troubling are allowed.

Chris Anderson writes:


Just wondering how you come to believe that it's insensitive? Why is the life of a child more important than the life of a calf?

Also, we don't legislate morality. We make it illegal to be immoral in the cases you talk about, but that doesn't make people moral. My point was that you can't make people into "good" people just by making laws. If people really want to do drugs, or kill someone, or any other range of classically immoral acts, the law doesn't stop them wanting to do that.

Rachel writes:

Why do you assume that the motivation for abortion is to rid oneself of unwanted children? In many cases, women have abortions because they discover through prenatal testing that their fetus has a very serious or even fatal medical condition (e.g. limb-body-wall-complex, anencephaly, triploidy). Would you really want to "nudge" these women to have their babies?

John Thacker writes:

How about loosening the argument further, Bryan? Don't take a position on whether or not people tend to regret abortions or not having them more (even though there may be data.) Merely state that "if the data shows that either is significantly more likely, then nudge logic argues that society should either encourage or discourage abortions, whichever the data shows." Then you don't have to argue the one premise (even though it's irrelevant as part of the thought experiment.) I suspect that that argument, despite being more "objective about the data," is horrific to more people than your original abortion hypothetical.

Would you really want to "nudge" these women to have their babies?

On the one hand, those abortions (especially if you restrict it to conditions that serious) are extreme cases and a pretty small percentage of overall abortions, and the whole claim of "libertarian paternalism" is that the extreme cases are free to make a different decision than what's right for the mass of people on the fence. Every nudge policy is going to have people in extreme situations who can and should overcome the nudges and switch from our paternalistic default. I don't think that people whose fetus has a fatal condition are really going to be on the fence. So this objection only holds as an argument against nudges in general. (Which, again, Bryan and I do oppose, but this is a logic exercise.)

Even so, can't the same sort of nudge logic apply in non-fatal cases that people do consider having an abortion? After all, I know parents of kids with reasonably severe conditions (Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc.) who always claim to be happy ex post and very glad that they didn't abort the child, even though ex ante they might have been inclined to. Perhaps not persuasive (there are all kinds of questions about selection bias and so on), but at the same time it doesn't seem all that different from standard "nudge" arguments. (Compare it to an argument that people who have, say, lost a limb or been paralyzed shouldn't commit suicide, even if they feel like it right now, since in the long run people adjust to conditions like that, so long as it's not one of constant pain.)

John Thacker writes:

As a matter of logic, Bryan, if you remove the premise about what the data shows, you'll prevent people from arguing against that premise instead of the rest of the argument. In that case, I expect that you'll get more people to find an issue with nudging. However, it's possible that people will continue to support nudging, simply being confident that the data will support their own views. (But are they confident that those making the paternalistic decisions will always agree that the data supports their views?)

Finch writes:

> Why is the life of a child more important than the
> life of a calf?

If you'd done your moral overlearning properly you would realize that it isn't.

Uhoh, I may have just reduced something to absurdity...

Jeff writes:
Just wondering how you come to believe that it's insensitive? Why is the life of a child more important than the life of a calf?

I sure hope you're a vegetarian! The alternative would seem to imply approval for cannibalism, no?

John Thacker writes:


Here's another analogy-- divorce. Quite a few polls show that a significant number of people who divorce end up regretting it later. Do Thaler et al. believe that that justifies nudges that would move us away from easy no-fault divorce? Certainly some social conservatives do-- they're really just "libertarian paternalists" it seems.

Floccina writes:

Chris Anderson wrote:

Take fast food, we know that it's bad for you. So why don't we "nudge" people to forego it? We could have:

No we don't, or rather we think fast food is bad for health but there us not solid evidence that it is.

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