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Nudging us to death

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote Nudge, arguing for something they called libertarian paternalism, the idea that government rather than forcing us to do the right thing might “nudge” us in the right direction via program design or tax incentives.

My biggest problem with nudging people via the power of the state is that the process would likely be corrupted via special interests. Why should we assume that the state will nudge us toward the good? Wouldn’t there be a tendency toward corruption? Nudging people toward what cronies want seems just as bad as forcing people to do what cronies want.

Another problem with nudging is that we don’t always agree on what is good. But surely nudging students toward fruit and away from ice cream is a good thing, isn’t it?

From Good Lifestyle:

Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, conducting a study on behalf of the New York Department of Health, discovered that the key to getting schoolchildren to eathealthier school lunches isn’t price. It’s positioning and presentation.

By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent. Other phenomenon that these food psychologists have noticed is that students who pay for their lunches with debit cards (rather than cash) tend to prefer junk food. The Lab director Brian Wansink believes that by only allowing students to pay for certain items with cards (excluding cookies, ice cream, chips, etc.), schools may be able to push students toward eating better.

These so-called “nudges” are part of a field called behavioral economics, which involves getting people to act in their best interest by playing on certain known behaviors and tendencies they exhibit.

Having people in power act in my best interest is a little creepy even in a case like this. But the bigger problem is knowing my best interest. For years, the government has systematically pushed the idea that fat is bad and carbs are good. But what if they have it wrong, as Gary Taubes and others suggest they have. What if fat is good and carbs are bad? What if the government has been nudging people toward obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Oops! Maybe it would be better to allow more competition in ideas and less nudging. I’ll nudge myself, thank you very much.


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