Friday, April 04, 2008

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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