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Nudge Dredd

December 4th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Opinion, Satire by


Professor Richard Thaler, Chief Justice of the Nudge movement sweeping politics, is back in Brit-Cit this week to advise the government on using his analysis of irrational behaviour to design non-coercive policies that encourage individual choices for longer, healthier and better lives. A philosophy he calls libertarian paternalism.

Underlying libertarian paternalism is a truth, that all of us frequently make ‘bad’ choices that do not extend, improve or enhance our lives; and a conceit that the state is always good at knowing what the best choices might be, that they are good at nudges to help us get there, and the nudges do more good than harm.

In the first part some ‘good’ decisions (by Thaler’s criteria) are obvious or evidence-based. Don’t smoke, drink in moderation, eat a balanced diet and do some exercise. Others are entirely subjective or moral choices. Be a player or a priest, experiment with soft drugs, go to church, and so on. Others have unclear implications with risks both ways. Play sports with a high risk of serious injury, let your kids watch commercials, cycle to work. Other choices like giving to charity may be bad for you and good for society.

What outcomes the state judges is good, with what priority, and what choices lead to those outcomes is largely a matter of politics. It is not obvious though there needs to be a political consensus on right and wrong in any electoral cycle, or that the ‘state’ view should be a monopoly. Liberal scepticism of monopoly should apply to edicts of certainty, whatever their source. And where good choices are clear, there are usually many more actors than the state involved in saying so, leaving it unclear why the state should expend treasure as one more voice. Is there any reason at all for example why GB plc is running five a day commercials alongside all the other exhortations to eat better?

Who is better at nudges, the private or public sector? I’m not sure there is a sensible answer to that question, or at least not a short one. Private companies looking for the next dollar can encourage bad choices, but equally can make good choices much easier through lifestyle marketing. Government marketing and opt-in/opt-out laws can make a difference, but when the government gets it wrong, for example with stakeholder pensions and nannying on trivia like stand-by buttons, the cost is large.

The wider libertarian movement suspicion though that nudges increase the scope of government to interfere in private decisions rather than make it less coercive is a reasonable worry. Are opt-out organ donor schemes a nudge or coercion? Is compelling companies to plain package cigarettes a nudge or heavy-handed regulation? What about all the perverse nudges and incentives to make bad choices in the welfare system?

In brief nudge policies are a broadly welcome alternative to some types of government intervention. They might be used to ‘nudge’ some politicians away from the jackboots to the nanny-shawl in the political dressy-up box; or leave it alone entirely. But there is a risk in the hands of Mega-government and protean Nudge Dredd politicians helping us for our own good, that what you actually get is something like

“you want choice citizen, I am the choice, prepare to be nudged”

7 Responses to “Nudge Dredd”

  1. Disconcerted Says:

    Choice is marketed by the govt as a good thing, esp in NHS care, but the reality is that choice means they can negate their responsibility to provide universal care. Choose from providers, choose from hospitals, decide how long you wait and how well you are treated.

    Choice within wider society, as influenced by the private sector, is linked directly to aspiration and schemas of society. Therefore to measure or compare effectiveness between public and private would show no significant understanding.

    Perhaps the underlying effectiveness is based on what drives the persuasive techniques. Cocopops are keen to nudge parents towards healthy eating, but their behaviour is caused by profit margin. Similar profit margins do not exist in the public sector, but are NHS health advisors driven by a desire to help and improve society or are they driven by magnanimous intention to be right and control?

    The debate goes on.

  2. Sara Scarlett Says:

    Good post, Andy!

    Another point I’d like to add is that we know that private companies ‘nudge’ us or at least try to nudge us into buying their products all the time. It’s not a case of who does it better because private companies don’t use our money to do it. And ultimately we can decide not to patronise that company if we so wish.

  3. chris Says:

    “using his analysis of IRRATIONAL behaviour to design non-coercive policies that encourage individual choices for longer, healthier and better lives.”
    Surely IRRATIONAL behaviour is the source of most invention and, for the past few years, the clarion call of so many – ‘Thinking outside of the Box’.
    Who want’s to live in a sterile Government approved box where only an elite are allowed predetermined creativity and life plans.

  4. Ed Joyce Says:

    These nudges seem to be value driven. What nudges are we to adopt to get people to exercise more ? Tax them them less so that they have more time would be a really good nudge but I don’t think that ‘nudge’ politics includes tax reduction in its remit. I am not persuaded that this is something worth supporting.

  5. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure about that Sara. Whichever product you choose to buy in the end, you are paying in part for the advertising, i.e. the nudge. That was one of the ironies of banning smoking advertisement. The government effectively enforced a truce among the tobacco companies, probably leaving them all better off.

    But the government nudge thing is silly. The idea is to help us achieve our goals, but that would imply high taxes for those who want to give up smoking, and subsidies for those who are determined to smoke themselves to death.

    In other words, the government will only help you achieve your goals if the government itself agrees with those goals. Paternalistic indeed.

  6. Sara Scarlett Says:

    “The government effectively enforced a truce among the tobacco companies, probably leaving them all better off.”

    But the price of cigarettes didn’t go down. And if other companies didn’t ‘nudge’ us into buying their products they probably wouldn’t reduce the price – they would just keep their profit.

  7. Angela Harbutt Says:

    I was a dinner the other evening – when someone made the point that Andy alludes to – at least in the private sector there are MULTIPLE nudges. For every company nudging you to buy a BIG MAC are three companies trying to nudge you to buy and innocent smoothie instead. Every company trying to nudge you to buy a porsche there are other companies trying to nudge you to by a Prius. The danger is when you have single huge state monopoly nudges – there is no choice.

    In that respect its not a NUDGE – though this may be the new language of the government – its a bloody great shove – if you are middle class and they raise the price of alcohol that may be a nudge to drink less…. but if you are poor and on a budget that extra few quid could be the difference between drinking and not drinking….thats not a nudge its prohibition.