Libertarian Paternalism – Careers Advisers as Choice Architects


I’ve decided to start a new series of posts looking at ideas and thoughts form my reading. I’m trying to make my personal reading a bit more reflective to try and give it more impact. I’ve just started reading the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. I’ve only read the introduction so these are some pretty early thoughts.

Choice Architects

Sunstein and Thaler discuss what they term as a “choice architect”. This is someone who presents a choice to someone else. Particularly they discuss how a choice architect builds the architecture that is put around the choice and how that influences someone’s actual decision. They give an example of someone deciding how food is displayed in a canteen. The order that the food is placed and the manner it is displayed effects the choices that people attending the canteen make. The idea of the book is that you can influence someone’s decision without revoking their freedom to choose. You do this through what Sunstein and Thaler term a “Nudge”.

I’m sure you can see how you could discuss Careers Advice in these term. Careers Advisers frequently present choices to people. Whether or not they like the idea of sharing information in this way most advisers I know would admit to at some point saying to a client “have you thought about…” As well as this careers departments often have websites, employ information officers, use social media to share information, run workshops on certain careers and so on. As advisers we are often aware of the things that other people wish we were promoting. STEM subjects, Self-employment, University for underprivileged kids, Graduate jobs and so on. If you’re a careers adviser sooner or later you’ll present a choice or be encouraged to do so.

Sunstein and Thaler claim that the way we present choices has a significant influence on the final result. How should we respond to this idea? In answer to this the authors introduce the idea of Libertarian Paternalism, which they describe as the combination of two apparently contradictory ideas into a new term. They describe it as follows, “the libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like-and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so.” The paternalistic portion of the term “lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better” (pg. 5)


Education and careers work often functions like this in my opinion. I don’t know of any schools that try and stop kids leaving school to pursue a job or self-employment at 18 but many schools have choice architecture that funnels all their kids towards univeristy. Similarly when a politician or a journalist says we need more girls in STEM careers they tend not to ban girls applying for alternatives but instead change the architecture to produce a different result. HE careers services’ focus on DLHE can be seen in similar terms. Of the many general pathways open to graduates the ones that lead to a graduate level job are encouraged over the others. These are all examples of “…influenc[ing] people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.”What I find interesting about what Sunstein and Thaler say is how it highlights paternalism in careers as an issue. I feel there is a lot of it around and it is worth thinking about it.

There is an obvious contradiction between saying people should “do what they like” and then in the next sentence say you intend to “influence people’s behaviour”. To be a bit cynical, what is being said is “people should have options open to them in theory but in practice we want to influence what option they choose.” Now I feel that their are times when we want to remove people’s options e.g. to become a dictator, to keep all your money to yourself rather than pay tax, to kill someone else without consequence. But I think that if you belive someone should do something you say it explicitly and then remove the alternatives. I find it under handed to say someone should be able to choose all options while directing them to a particular option.

Some people may make a distinction here between what is morally fine and what is best for someone. For example when I proposed to my now wife I feel that I was under to moral obligation to do so (well I guess you could say I would have led her on if I had not proposed but you know what I mean) but I decided that it was best for me to ask her the question. Does this create a situation where paternalism is allowed? It’s morally fine to go to work as a cleaner after a degree but it would be better for someone to take on a graduate job? I think there are two problems here. Firstly it’s not easy to speak with confidence about what is best for a group of people on non-moral issues. We tend to think that working a graduate role offers better career progression, job satisfaction and pay than working as a cleaner. But this assumes what people find satisfying in work is universal and that pay and career progression are central concerns to everyone. A graduate may decide to become a cleaner because of a desire to show solidarity to a particular group of workers or because they are rebelling against the notion of an acceptable career. These may seem like very unlikely reasons but it does challenge an assumption that all cleaners would be more fulfilled in graduate level positions. Secondly there is an issue of agency. I feel a society where people take responsibility for their decisions, learn to work out what is best for themselves and learn from their mistakes will in the long run lead to a better society than when people are herded towards particular destinations. Giving responsibility treats people with greater dignity and acknowledges that no all decisions can be managed from on high and so to some degree people need to learn to make decisions for themselves.


Sunstein and Thaler seem too imply there are three positions you can take towards the decisions people make in society. Limit them through traditional paternalism, leave everything open through traditional Libertarianism or combine the two in Libertarian Paternalism. I feel there is another option that better navigates the devide between Libertarian Paternalism in the form of education. This aims to support people’s decision making not by covertly influecing it but by explicitly supporting it. This does provide genuine freedom while also opening up the possibility of change.

So if you fear that not enough poor kids go to University because of a lack of role models in their social culture then you could encourage role models in to school to encourage change in this (a Nudge if you will). But my problem with this is that it assumes a best result, Uni for poor kids. I think it is better to give all young people the skills to understand how their cultures may be influencing them as well as the ability to gain information about the options availabe to them. This will challenge some kids perceptions about their future while it will mean some accept their culture but on a more rational basis. This is scarry as it puts control with the kids and it is harder becuase directing is easier than nudging but I feel it is better.

I feel that careers work should focus more on the process of allowing people to decide what is important to themselves and working towards achieving it rather than aiming at particular results and encouraging people towards them. I feel this is in contrast to a lot of government policy on careers work both in schools and at HE. As a side note this focus in my opinion has led to the devaluing and de-skilling of the careers profession. After all herding sheep is a lot easier than enabling people to take responsibility for their careers themselves.

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