≡ Menu

Stop Nudging Me

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

David Brooks argues that “In theory, it is possible that gentle nudges [from government] will turn into intrusive diktats,” but that in practice such a transformation hasn’t often happened.  Therefore, reasons Mr. Brooks, more nudging by government is unlikely to result in more diktats.  “Gentle” nudging will remain the norm (“The Nudge Debate,” August 9).

I disagree.  One reason why the empirical record isn’t more full of nudges turning into diktats is that government typically issues diktats from the get-go.  We Americans were commanded, without any prior “nudging,” to use low-flow faucets.  We were commanded, without prior “nudging,” not to use marijuana.  We were commanded, without prior “nudging,” to set aside a portion of our earnings into Social Security.  Ditto, of course, for countless other aspects of our lives – including being commanded by Obamacare, without prior “nudging,” to buy health insurance as designed by government officials.

If the arrogant busybodies who itch to practice social engineering are somehow persuaded to launch more of their engineering projects with “nudges” rather than with diktats, any significant failure of those “nudges” to produce the desired socially engineered outcomes will inevitably be taken as proof that those “nudges” should be turned into commands.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

I don’t have the book readily at hand, but in Cass Sunstein’s 2013 volume Simpler – which I reviewed here – he uses his “libertarian paternalist” thesis to justify Uncle Sam’s resort to ever-stronger “nudges” to prevent people from smoking cigarettes.  The increasingly large and explicit warning labels, the significant restrictions on advertising, and the extraordinarily high ‘sin’ taxes on cigarettes have not – in the view of Sunstein and most other “Progressives” – worked sufficiently to prevent smoking.  So stronger “nudges” are justified.

It’s fair to point out that even within “nudge” theory a particular real-world nudge can be insufficiently strong.  But what are the criteria for deciding whether or not a “nudge” is sufficiently strong?  Sunstein’s happy justification for ever-stronger government efforts to “nudge” us away from using tobacco use reveal – to me, at least – one of the weaknesses of “nudge” theory.  That weakness is that the only practical criterion for judging whether or not the strength of the nudge is adequate is whether or not the activity sought to be reduced has in fact been significantly reduced by the nudge.  If that activity hasn’t been significantly reduced, the libertarian paternalist would say, “Ok, in this instance people in fact exercise their freedom to ignore our nudges; so although these choices are not the ones that we planners wish people would make, we must accept these revealed preferences as reality and leave people be.  No nudging people any further on this front.”  In contrast, the libertarian paternalist would say, “Our nudging must get stronger because people are still behaving in ways that we disapprove of.”

My hunch is that the overwhelmingly dominant proclivity of enthusiasts for “libertarian paternalism” is paternalism and not libertarianism.