Column on Nudging Illusion

The Nudging Illusion
Tibor R. Machan
No sooner does one line of defense of statism fall into disrepute, another
is invented by people who insist that they and others with special virtues
and qualities have the moral and should have the legal authority to meddle
with other people’s lives. Socialism and fascism have pretty much been
discredited, so outright top down management of people’s lives, whether
economic or spiritual, is now out of fashion. Except for some dyed in the
wool enthusiast for running people’s lives by means of coercive force,
most meddlers are now urging the deployment of less Draconian measures by
which to carry out their interventions. (Such folks like to point to
China’s communist rulers who are far from Stalinist thugs.)
Richard H. Thaler, who is a Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics,
and Cass R. Sunstein, a Professor of Law–both of them at the University
of Chicago–are two indefatigable academic champions of meddling. But they
know that this is not a goal that too many people find attractive as
public policy. (Of course there are innumerable measures of intervention
in play in this and most other societies but the intellectual support for
them is not coming off as very credible these days.) So instead of
promoting even the less harsh versions of the command system–e. g.,
market socialism–these authors are pushing libertarian paternalism or
what they call nudging in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About
Wealth, Health, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2008). The idea is pretty
elementary: don’t try to make people act better by threats of–or
actual–physical force; nudge them by subtle mandatory adjustments in
their environment. An example they use to illustrate the method involves
placing an image of a fly in an airport urinal which tends to incline men
to aim at it and thus prevents spillage by 80 per cent. How clever and
gentle! So why not have governments follow this approach as they try to
make men and women behave better?
One simple answer is that it is insidious to have governments manipulate
the citizenry with various tricks. Airport urinal designers operate
without a captive clientele. One need not go there but could have gone at
a gas station or back home before getting on the road. And, in any case,
the urinals belong to the airport, so they have the authority to design it
any way they want to.
But more importantly, there is that famous saying from the ancient Greek
philosopher, Aristotle, that one swallow does not a springtime make! Just
because there is one example of useful manipulation of people–and we use
such nudging techniques all the time in our personal lives, of course, in
our voluntary associations with people–it doesn’t follow that they are
all clever and wise.
It is sad that Thaler and Sunstein do not fully appreciate the work of
public choice theorists who have taught some very useful lessons about
entrusting government bureaucrats with the task of guiding the rest of us
in how we should live our lives. While now and then these
bureaucrats–lead by legislatures and consultants–may hit upon a
fruitful, sensible measure that we all ought to adopt in our lives, there
is absolutely no reason to think that they will do this routinely. Public
choice theorists note, very helpfully, that people in power have their own
agendas and while now and then they may act as bona fide public
servants–though not even then as necessarily skillful ones–in time most
of them become simple promoters of their own goals. And they will always
be subject to the very same foibles that the rest of us are subject to and
which Thaler and Sunstein believe justifies their intruding upon us in
typical Nanny-like fashion. In short, who will nudge those doing the
nudging to nudge the right way?
This fantasy that there are among us some few folks who just know so much
better how we ought to live–how we ought to care for our wealth, health
and happiness–is a grave threat to us all. Thaler and Sunstein complain
that we need the nudging because “there are limits on the number of items
to which we can pay attention at one time.” Yet that very same thing is
true about all those who would do the nudging, so their propensity to mess
things up is just as great as ours. Moreover, because they are powerful,
able to impose their will on others, the probability of their going astray
is greater than that of us doing so–in the spirit of Lord Acton’s famous
saying, “Power tends to corrupt, absolutely power corrupts absolutely.”
Nudging has its uses but not as public policy, not by a long shot.

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3 Responses to Column on Nudging Illusion

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