≡ Menu

John Stuart Mill Would Likely Disagree With Me

Here’s a letter to Cafe Hayek commenter Mark Phelan:

Mr. Phelan:

In your comment on this blog post of mine you ask “Shouldn’t society take some ‘nudging’ position when it comes to individual addictions [such as] obesity [and] opioid abuse?”

Care must be taken when talking about “society” doing “some ‘nudging.’”  Most advocates of ‘nudging’ – including the 2017 Nobel economics laureate, Richard Thaler – wish to empower the state to nudge.  Whatever you think of the propriety, wisdom, or justice of adults being ‘nudged’ away from choosing options that they would otherwise choose, any nudging done by the state is not nudging done by society.  Instead, nudging done by the state is in reality nudging done by particular flesh-and-blood individuals.  Describing such nudging as being done by “society” masks the danger that lurks in giving some individuals the power to superintend the lives of other individuals.  What good reason have you to suppose that those individuals who are empowered to nudge others are themselves immune from the psychological quirks that allegedly justify their power to nudge others?  And further, what good reason have you to trust that the nudgers, when their nudges fail, won’t redouble their efforts to direct the lives of others by resorting to shoving?

There is, though, a way in which nudging is genuinely done by society.  We’re social creatures who are deeply influenced by the opinions and reactions of our fellows.  The feedback that we all give to each other through our approval and disapproval – through our applause and our jeers – through expressions of our gratitude and of our disappointment – nudges each of us to act more appropriately (at least as judged my most of our fellows) without at the same time empowering any of us to shove others around.  Such nudging by society isn’t perfect, but, in my view, it’s far more reliable and less dangerous than is power – even nudging power – exercised by even the most well-meaning and highly educated state officials.

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