SurrealPolitiks S01E002 – Choice Architect

What is political power?

One way to think about it, is as the capacity to alter the behavior of others. In this sense, the formal acquisition of such power, as in the assignment to a position within the government, or political party, is merely the acknowledgement of a previously existing state of affairs. One obtains the assignment, by having influenced the behavior of the person or group responsible for such a designation, and so he has necessarily already displayed the power at issue. The title only bestows a sense of officialdom. Though, of course, this officialdom does have the impact of amplifying the power in question.

In more shallow analyses of government and politics, there is a tendency to think political power derives from office, rather than the other way around. This confusion of the order of operations is no less vexing in politics than it is in mathematics. If one does his math from right to left, ignores parenthetical equations, or subtracts before he multiplies, he is fortunate to fail in his education. Should he make such errors later in his career, he could cause airplanes to fall out of the sky, or create any other manner of tragedy that may ensue from miscalculation.

When men believe that they “deserve” political power, and consider it an unnatural state of affairs that they do not hold office, similar frictions apply. The most vivid example of this is terrorism. Men believe it is “unfair” that they cannot access the levers of power, and they go on to demonstrate why they are unfit to the task, by harming the innocent.

None of us are entirely devoid of power. Some have more than others, to be sure, but each of us influence people every day. Even if one chose to live a life of solitude, hiding in the wilderness and living off the land, his choice ultimately has no less an effect on the price of goods and services by refraining from their purchase than if he made it his life’s work to acquire all that he could. In one case he subtracts from demand, in the other he adds, but the fact of his existence is going to be part of that equation, whether he likes it or not.

I am a student of persuasion. By listening to this show, you too will become one, if you are not already. On another production I recently spoke at some length about a behavioral psychologist named Robert Cialdini, and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. While a recap of that discussion will be beyond the scope of our task today, we can briefly say that Cialdini and others who study persuasion, make the case that our decisions are largely subconscious processes. These are influenced by identifiable factors, upon careful observation, but are generally unknown to the decider. For example, a voter typically convinces himself that he supports this or that candidate for prudent reasons pertaining to policy positions, but studies show that decidedly non-policy-oriented factors like physical appearance can be decisive in elections. People tend to favor political slogans more if they were eating something they enjoyed when they heard them, and liked them less if undetectable levels of a putrid odor were circulating in the room at the time.

I titled today’s show “Choice Architect” as a nod to Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, from whom I heard the term for the first time recently as I listened to the audio version of their book, Nudge: The Final Edition: Improving Decisions About Money, Health, and the Environment.

Sunstein and Thaler coined another term in the first edition of the book, which drew a great deal of justifiable criticism. The phrase “Libertarian Paternalism” drove their fellow Leftists insane, because they hate freedom and cannot bare to hear the word libertarian mentioned absent some derisive comment. It should almost go without saying that the libertarians did not much care to be associated with paternalism.

The book garnered controversy among those less concerned with terminology as well. Like most Leftists, Sunstein and Thaler lack faith in their fellow man. They view the average person as something of a pinball bouncing off the components of his environment, and see it as the responsibility of an elite to shape that environment in ways that will convince the poor dupe that he is making his own choices, though they doubt this is really even possible, much less desirable, and certainly not actually the case.

If the reader detects in this description a tone of contempt, he is not conjuring this in his own imagination. Your humble correspondent considers these men dangerous and malicious, though more because of how they apply this view of mankind, than because of the view itself. Clearly, there is some truth to the idea that environmental factors inform a person’s decision making. This is almost too obvious to need stating. Less obvious, but no less true, is the fact that these environmental factors are in no small part shaped by intentional actors, who hold the awesome power and responsibility of directing people’s behaviors. It is quite prudent that a book should be written to describe this phenomenon, and one might hope that responsible people would read such a book.

Let us consider a rather mundane example used in the text. The authors ask the reader to imagine a woman named Catherine who is the director of food services for a large city school system. Catherine is responsible for the cafeterias in hundreds of schools, and hundreds of thousands of children will have their dietary choices informed by Catherine’s decisions. It should almost go without saying that Catherine can impact the dietary options of the students by changing the menu, but this is not the only decision she will make. Will the French fries be the first thing on the line? Or will carrots be made more salient? Will cookies and other sweets be at eye level, or will the student need to request one?

While taking the French fries out of the school might be described as a shove, Thaler and Sunstein refer to intelligently choosing their placement as a nudge. They purport a desire to preserve the perception of free will, and to avoid coercion, but to guide people toward decisions the authors deem preferable, through what they refer to as choice architecture.

As the authors point out, so long as Catherine maintains her position as the director of food services, she cannot help but make these decisions, and those decisions unavoidably influence the decisions of the students. Even if she abandons the post, she is choosing to put someone else in charge, and thus she chooses all the same. It is not a question of whether or not she will inform the dietary choices of the students. It is not even a question of degree. The question is what she will do with the power.

She could, at least in theory, choose to place food items at random in an effort to avoid transmitting her subjective value judgements to the students, but that is itself a value judgement, and one doubts this would improve anything save perhaps Catherine’s opinion of herself. She could try to maximize profits or cut costs, depending on whether most of the students in the school district paid for their meals or were receiving them at taxpayer expense. She could take bribes from food vendors and try to improve her own material situation. She could maliciously try to feed the children unhealthy food out of some kind of ethnic or other animus.

Considering the full range of all Catherine’s options, I hope you will agree that the most reasonable thing that Catherine can do with the power of her position, is to intelligently arrange the cafeteria in a way that will gently guide the students toward a healthy and enjoyable meal. In this, your humble correspondent agrees with the authors.

So why the contempt?

Sunstein and Thaler demonstrate during the text that they are not fools. Thaler is an economist. Sunstein, a legal scholar. They understand better than most the fundamental principle of their respective fields of study, which is that human beings respond to incentives. Moreover, they articulate their comprehension of the fact too many libertarians overlook, which is that those incentives are not always measurable in dollars. From this we may infer that they understand what they are advocating, and are capable of contemplating the long term effects of such advocacy.

Yet the authors specifically disavow any such contemplation. They call this “bathmophobia” – a technical term for an irrational fear of falling down an incline – which they invoke to deride the concept of the “slippery slope” argument. They bring up gun control as their featured example, as I quote from the book;

Slippery slope arguments are popular in the United States among those who are opposed to gun control. In this case, X is any restriction on an individual’s right to own a gun (say, a ban on the ownership of assault weapons), and Z would be the government comes and confiscates all weapons, including steak knives and water pistols. Well, that is an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

The problem with most slippery slope arguments is that they do not provide any evidence of an actual slope: that is, a reason to believe that doing X makes it more likely, much less inevitable, that we will get Y and Z. This has not stopped people from making such arguments that on their face are rather dubious. For example, there was a Supreme Court argument about the Affordable Care Act in which the issue being discussed was whether the government could constitutionally require citizens to purchase health insurance. Justice Antonin Scalia famously argued that if this requirement were legal, nothing would stop some future government from requiring people to eat broccoli. Talk about scare tactics!

The student of persuasion, or for that matter, anyone who has read Saul Alinsky, can clearly discern here a deceptive tactic being deployed.

Most glaringly, there exists no shortage of examples in which governments gradually chip away at the liberty and property of their citizens. That this gradual process would accelerate subsequent to their being disarmed hardly needs stating, much less the predictive powers of a fortune teller. The authors mockingly point to the absence of a thing every student of history knows is anything but lacking, and and on this basis invite the reader to conclude that their critics are unthinking fools.

The informed observer of the Supreme Court of the United States must doubt that Antonin Scalia was ever an unthinking fool, or that his greatest fear was an act of congress instituting compulsory broccoli consumption. His example was obviously not chosen out of lachanophobia (a clinical term describing an irrational fear of vegetables), but rather to illustrate the absurdity of a legal argument in which the Constitution of the United States grants Congress the power to do whatever it thinks might conceivably improve the health of the citizenry. Politics inevitably involves disagreement over what is and is not “good” for the country, and this is by no means lost on Sunstein and Thaler.

Notably, the authors invoke, in the final edition of the book, the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, which conjured from the penumbras a heretofore undiscovered constitutional right to same sex marriage. And at that, one notably less subject to infringement than the explicitly stated second amendment which they just finished mocking. In the first edition of the book, they had been advocates of so called “civil unions” because they had not predicted the public ever being willing to accept such a thing. This was itself a “nudge” in their view, designed to normalize homosexuality among a people who would reject it, given the choice. They were right, of course, in that the population never did accept it. This was forced upon them by the Court through the vote of five unelected Justices who had uniformly been nominated by Presidents who insisted they believed marriage was between one man and one woman, including Barack Obama.

Whatever your thoughts on gay rights, it is not in dispute that certain health problems plague the gay community. If Congress has the power to do whatever it deems may improve the health of its citizens, then it hardly makes sense that they and the States under their jurisdiction would have no say in something so consequential as marriage. One also doubts Sunstein, a legal scholar, had any trouble discerning the distinct absence of any such right being mentioned in the Constitution of the United States.

The authors deride another supposed slippery slope argument, pertaining to opponents of women’s suffrage, from whom we sadly hear little today. Quoting from the book;

The track record of slippery slope forecasts in the political domain is not exactly stellar. An opponent of women’s suffrage once predicted that giving women the right to vote would create a “race of masculine women and effeminate men and the mating of these would result in the procreation of a race of degenerates.” Another opponent, noting that women represent more than half the population, predicted that allowing women to vote would mean that all our political leaders would soon be women. For the record, in 2021, women held only 26 percent of the seats in Congress. We only wish that slope had been a bit more slippery!


We might consider ourselves fortunate that most women have not seen fit to degrade themselves by becoming legislators, whatever the authors may wish. And, one might have difficulty drawing a straight line from women’s suffrage to the transgender craze plaguing our public schools. But anyone with a familiarity of voter demographics would have a hard time making the case that anyone would even be capable of imagining this situation, had the electorate remained entirely male.

Examples abound, but I’ll let those suffice to illustrate this point. Sunstein and Thaler are Left wing fanatics whose malice is demonstrated by their hypocrisy. They dress up their fanaticism in social science jargon, and describe their scheming as being born of a libertarian impulse, but they celebrate each opportunity to transition from nudge to shove. On this subject, they make another mocking comment, which one suspects they realize is more confession than denial. Quoting again from the book;

We bring up slippery slope arguments because critics have used them to criticize nudging and libertarian paternalism. “First it’s nudge, then it’s shove, then it’s shoot,” as they say. (But why? The whole point of nudging is to avoid shoving, let alone shooting.)


Which is to say, they have a loose preference not to shoot you, but it’s an option. So, take the hint, or else.

So, why bring this up on SurrealPolitiks?

I imagine some of you may recall a controversy that emerged during the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary, in which former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who was then seeking our Party’s nomination, told David Gregory on Meet the Press, that “I don’t think Right wing social engineering is any more desirable than Left wing social engineering.”

The remark was in response to a budget plan proposed by Paul Ryan, and it involved some controversial changes to the Medicare program which might more accurately be described as libertarian-ish than Right wing, but the substance of the issue is almost besides the point. Here, Gingrich expressed a view that pervades among conservatives to this day, and is costing our Party and our Country dearly.

Whatever one’s views on the desirability of social engineering, it is a fact of life, and most certainly it is among the defining characteristics of government policy, second only to its coercive element. Like Catherine deciding where to place the French fries, government decides, whether through action or inaction, where to take money, where to give it, who to put in prison, and who to kill. One who seeks to abstain from this decision making has no place in politics.

If Republicans abstain from social engineering, they do not free their citizens from its influence, they simply forfeit the influence to people like Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler. I might be overstating matters just a bit to say that the entire point of this show is to stop that from happening, but it closely enough approximates my point, that I ask the reader to infer all appropriate caveats and accept the gist.

Thaler and Sunstein get what they want politically, and not because their fanaticism is uncompromising. The whole entire point of the concept of nudge is distinctly progressive in its effort to unravel society in stages. Though they mock the concept of a slippery slope, they explicitly aim at bringing about precisely such rapid declines, celebrate their coming to fruition, and make only the most meager effort to dress this fact in a thin layer of plausible deniability.

Wikipedia provides a flattering illustration of Sunstein’s life and career, and I beg the reader’s pardon for my using this Antifa blog as a source, but I think for our purposes it will serve just fine.

Sunstein was born in 1954. He reportedly said he was influenced in his early life by Ayn Rand, but quickly turned Leftward politically, before graduating high school. He didn’t declare the system he hated corrupt and bow out. He didn’t pick up a rifle and embark upon a suicide mission. He didn’t try to start a new political party. He went to Harvard Law School.

He was never shy about his political views, but he made efforts to dress them up in respectable terminology, exemplified to some degree by the citations above. Same sex marriage used to be something only extremists talked about, as a noteworthy example, so Sunstein proposed civil unions and compared it to the now uncontroversial position of supporting women’s suffrage. This allowed him to advance rapidly in law and in education, culminating in his 2009 nomination by Barack Obama to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His nomination was not without controversy, but after a robust debate in the Senate, he was confirmed 57-40.

In 2014, studies of legal publications found Sunstein to be the most frequently cited American legal scholar by a wide margin. This despite, or perhaps because, he advocates legal theories that are a direct attack on the very concept of law and order.

If you’re anywhere near my age, it’s probably a little late to go to law school, but that’s hardly dispositive of the point I mean to make.

Just like Catherine can choose to ban French fries from the cafeteria, you can choose to demand radical political changes that almost nobody supports. You can impress a small group of people with your uncompromising stance on some unpopular position, and you may derive some psychological benefit from doing so. But Catherine is a lot more likely to positively impact the dietary choices of the students if she is less overt in her guidance of their decisions, and you are far more likely to influence people’s political thinking if you are not chasing away those whose ideas you seek to influence.

For all the hysteria surrounding Donald Trump, it is a popular and moderate position to say that illegal immigration is illegal, and should accordingly be prevented and punished. Leftists tried to make him out to be the second coming of Adolf Hitler, because they reasonably anticipated this would not be the end of the story. Addressing this very real and serious problem is a nudge toward recognizing that, however the laws may be organized, a society that ceases to reproduce, and replaces itself with foreigners, is a dying society. That realization carries implications that cannot help but shatter the Leftist narratives which plague us today, and there is literally nothing they would not do to stop that little bitty nudge from taking hold.

Conservatives warn us that “First it’s nudge, then it’s shove, then it’s shoot” and from this conclude that one ought not nudge. They would do far better in politics if they nudged a little harder, while looking for the opportunity to shove, instead of impotently cursing the nature of politics, and waiting for the pronoun police to blow their brains out.

Recall from episode one that progressivism emerged not in contrast to conservatism, but to revolution. It was a question of means, not of ends. While the Weather Underground were waging a campaign of terror, Cass Sunstein was finishing law school.

Today, if you search “Weather Underground” your first results will be from the Weather Channel. You’ll have to specify that you’re talking about a terrorist organization to find any reference to Bill Ayers. He narrowly avoided prison for his crimes, when it was discovered that the FBI had acted in ways it sought not to brag about, and federal prosecutors dropped the charges which had kept him on the run as a fugitive for years prior. Given that many leftists are closeted or not so closeted revolutionaries, and as such hold Ayers in high regard, it would be overstating matters to say is has no power. He has more than me, and likely more than you, but only to the extent that he is an inspirational figure for fanatics with violent plans or fantasies.

Sunstein, by contrast, would go on to influence pubic policy through scholarly citations, authorship of influential books, and formal employment with the Obama administration in a Senate confirmed position. Long after he is dead, those citations and books will continue to deform our society.

Even if none of us ever achieve anything resembling Sunstein’s success, we would still do well to learn from it. Moreover, we have a choice to make, as to whether we nudge the people around us toward that kind of influence, or toward mere infamy.

Nudge is a vital text for people seeking to understand progressivism. I encourage you to it, or listen to the audiobook. The way it is structured does not permit the sort of analysis we’ve made elsewhere of Cialdini, and though it contains valuable insights into the subject of persuasion, the book is more about policy than psychology, which in our view, renders it less interesting as podcast fodder. The authors’ tendency to put forth extremist Left wing political ideas as obvious and objective social goods, we warn will grate against the sensibilities of the sane, but keeping one’s enemies closer than one’s friends is a cliche for the truth it conveys, and we think good people are well served to understand their opponents.

Recognizing the scarcity of time, we offer this briefest of summaries before ending this segment, and taking your calls.

You can extrapolate much of the book’s premise from the story of Catherine and the cafeterias. She will influence the people in her sphere whether she likes it or not, and so the best course for her is to understand that influence and wield it responsibly. The same goes for anyone involved in business, politics, media, or anything else. The idea that any of us can be neutral is nonsensical, and can only lead to miscalculation.

You don’t have to agree with Paul Ryan to see the problem with Newt Gingrich’s disdain for Right wing social engineering. Social engineering is the norm, not the exception. It can be Right wing or it can be Left wing, but it cannot be neutral. A lot of what would now be deemed Right wing social engineering used to be considered obvious.

Encouraging healthy families, and productive enterprise.

Discouraging vice, and communism.

Protecting the country from invasion, and instilling in the population the love of country that makes men willing to sacrifice their lives in service of that protection.

This is what we have abandoned, in the misguided pursuit of free will, and what we have obtained is something that does not bear one bit of resemblance to greater freedom.

It has been replaced by hookup culture, abortion, gender ideology, inflation, bank failures, and rampant drug addiction. We watch on television as millions pour in to our country illegally. We empty our weapons stockpiles into a foreign country, and our military fails to meet its recruitment goals. As the consequences of these things inflict suffering on the population, the government moves to silence and disarm and imprison its critics.

This is not organic. It is not the outcome of revolution. It is the consequence of Left wing social engineering. A nudge here, a shove there, every now and then, a shot.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Right wing social engineering is, indeed, more desirable than this. The perceived restrictions it imposes, are akin to prohibiting a child from playing in traffic. Done skillfully, it will, over time, not be recognized as social engineering. It will once again be accepted as the expected and desirable behavior of responsible Statesmen, educators, and media personalities.

With any luck, this unfortunate period of our history will be mocked by future generations. They will appreciate their freedom to tell the truth, and view the freedom to change one’s gender or kill one’s offspring, in the way most today view the freedom to own slaves.

But we are very far from that point today, and if we hope to get there, we’ll have to nudge a little faster.


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