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Another Danger With Nudging

I highly recommend Michael Huemer’s 2013 book, The Problem of Political Authority.  Thumbing this morning through my heavily marked-up copy I re-read the following passage from page 134; this passage from Huemer occurs during his discussion of Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment (in which students volunteering to role play as prison guards, and other students volunteering to role play as prisoners, displayed disturbing traits of power-abuse and acquiescence in such abuse) (original emphasis; footnote excluded):

Another lesson of the Stanford experiment concerns the reactions of others to authority figures. The prisoners in the experiment, initially at least somewhat resistant, were reduced to meek submission by the end of the experiment.  They complied with nearly all, even the most offensive demands issued by the guards.  On the face of it, this is puzzling, as the guards had no real power to compel the prisoners to obey.  The guards were prohibited from using violence and in any case were, in each shift, outnumbered three to one by prisoners.  If the prisoners had resolutely refused to obey the guards, it is unclear what the guards could have done.  Yet the prisoners obeyed, despite the increasingly irrational and offensive nature of the guards’ commands and despite the arbitrary nature of their supposed authority.  Nor was this obedience to be explained as a result of a sense of a contractual obligation.  While the subjects had agreed to be part of a simulation of prison life, they had not agreed to obey all guard commands.  And even if they thought themselves obligated to be obedient to some extent, this would not explain why the prisoners became more submissive as the study wore on and the guards’ demands became more unreasonable.  One lesson to draw from this is that psychologically, power is self-validating.  Even when the ‘authorities’ are selected entirely arbitrarily and everyone knows this, the mere assertion of authority tends to be accepted by others.  Furthermore, the longer one obeys an authority figure, the more one feels ‘bound’ to continue to do so.

The realities of humans’ psychology revealed by the Stanford and several other similar experiments are further reasons why concentrated power or even anything resembling sovereign authority is never to be trusted.  But what in particular struck me as I re-read this passage earlier today is that it offers a warning against the policy of so-called “libertarian paternalism.”  This policy, as many readers know, is the source of the suggestion that government should actively but not coercively “nudge” people to make ‘better’ choices.

Nudging might always be better than outright coercion.  This fact, however, does not make nudging an acceptable policy for government to pursue.  As Mario Rizzo, among others, points out, libertarian paternalistic nudging is plenty dangerous.  The above passage – although not explicitly about nudging – highlights one reason to beware of the danger of nudging: power corrupts its holders and simultaneously dopes its victims.  Power, in short, causes people to lose their minds.  So even power exercised through nudging rather than through jailing or shooting is never to be trusted to generate outcomes acceptable to any sane person.


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