In the last few years there has been a small expansion in the number of universities that are reinstating ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) after the cancellation of such programs due to protests against the war in Vietnam. I express no opinion here about whether universities should have ROTC programs. My points here have equal applicability to military recruiting of all kinds.
My concern here is a relatively wonkish one. Why have not the new paternalists (those who base their paternalistic policies on the findings of behavioral economics) sought to apply their ideas to young college students signing up for ROTC? Or to other young people going to their neighborhood military recruitment center.
Consider that these potential recruits seem to meet all of the behavioral red flags. First, they are young with little experience of the world and so their decision is would be one in which their data base is deficient. They would seem to be similar to first-time home buyers who are alleged to be easily subject to fraud and manipulation. Second, the young have the now almost-proverbial sense of immortality. If anyone has an “optimism bias” then clearly they do. Third, the usual behavioral remedy to optimism bias is not used here. In order to overcome optimism bias with respect to smoking cigarettes, new paternalists recommend scary risk narratives to use availability bias against optimism bias. I do not see scary narratives being used by military recruiters and in ads for the military in movie theaters, for example.
To understand what may be going on, we need to look at the behavioral policy framework more broadly. The idea of the behavioral nudge is usually portrayed as a form of paternalism but it has been used in other contexts. The first is what has been misleadingly called “libertarian beneficence.” This is constructing nudges, often by government, to make people more likely to donate their kidneys after death, contribute to worthy causes, and so forth. There are also nudges designed to get people to be more environmentally concerned as when hotels put little notes in the bathroom about not changing your towels on a daily basis. We might call this an “externality nudge.” Therefore nudge proposals have been used to promote paternalism, beneficence, and possibly the reduction in negative externalities. In principle, it seems that nudges based on behavioral economics may be proposed to increase the likelihood of any behavior. (Clearly, I am abstracting from whether these nudges are advisable and whether they really work to achieve their stated goals.)
Let’s extend the nudge idea a little further. Suppose you truly believe that nudges work and they can, in very many cases, be desirable. Now when you don’t advocate a nudge in cases where it seems – at least prima facie – to be appropriate, observers have a right to be puzzled and ask for an explanation.
So what is the explanation for the absence of proposals for paternalistic nudges with regard to military service? I suggest it is a case of the inverse nudge – deliberately not proposing nudges in order to produce a certain result. What is that result? I will call it self-sacrifice (should we use the perverse term “libertarian self-sacrifice”?). Self-sacrifice should be distinguished from beneficence because the latter need not require the individual to incur high costs but also, most importantly, because beneficence is classically directed toward individuals. In this case it potentially involves high costs and it is directed toward the advancement government policies that use violence in an essential way.
I think what this shows is that the paternalist framework and its corresponding policy ideas can be used in a myriad of ways – and withheld selectively – in each case where the political winds may direct. Therein lies one important source of its arbitrariness. It also shows that new paternalists are not consistent in their stated primary purpose to make individuals better off in terms of their own interests.