A liberal I respect recently recommended a book he thought I might find interesting, Nudge by Thaler & Sunstein. If a book provides me with at least one new insight or fresh idea, even if the rest of the book was stale, then I consider it to have been worth my time. Well, I can say that I came away from Nudge with a couple of different ideas, and considering it was a very fast read, then my time-cost to benefit ratio was acceptable.
I knew this would be a very liberal book as it was written by two Harvard professors and I was aware that one of the authors had been posted to a position in Obama’s administration. As annoying as it is to read a book inherently written with such a liberal bias, not all of the ideas were bad; even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Quite a bit of the book is devoted to explaining why people make the choices they do, which is very similar to another book I recently read, Blink. Most of it was common sense and nothing that salesmen and marketing professionals did not figure out decades ago.
The book is said to be about “ways of helping people to make better choices without requiring anybody to do anything. It’s a conception of government that is reluctant to impose mandates and bans but is kind of shrewd about enlisting what we know about human behavior in good directions.” They have named their theory “Libertarian Paternalism”, expecting I suppose, to convince those of us with true libertarian leanings that their ideas are right down the middle of the road. They do this a lot, manipulating their own readers with “nudges”, which simply turn out to be insulting.
They offer many examples of tactics and situations in which you can nudge people into making the “correct” decision, and many of them were good ideas for the private sector. But I am going to focus on the ideas where government was doing the nudging, because that it the reason the book was written. The rest of the pages were just padding to obscure the true purpose, which was to allow the virtuous liberal to feel good about himself while he condescendingly tinkers with the decision making of lesser mortals.
It is interesting that despite the theory being named “Libertarian Paternalism”, only three of the many ideas were libertarian in nature — and those were the ones that were okay with me. Not surprisingly, they did not involve nudging at all, but instead called for the removal of government from certain areas of life, such as the doctor/patient relationship, the institution of marriage, and the rights of a human to do what they wish with their own body. All sound ideas to me.
As for the other examples of government intervention, some of those were not nudges either. For example, they support sin taxes such as those on cigarettes. How is that a gentle nudge? The smoker is not given a better choice and nudged toward it. A sin tax is simply a punitive measure. I abhor smoking, but it irritates me greatly when government attempts to make money off the backs of a minority because they know the majority will not care. One never knows what tomorrow’s sin will be when libs are running the show.
The authors give examples of government nudging in the areas of social security, healthcare, and education to name a few. Here is an example of nudging: We are told that too many choices are counterproductive to good decision-making, which may be true. The nudge comes in when the government pares down the citizen’s choices to those that are “best for that person”. The authors emphasize throughout the book that people should retain freedom of choice, but it becomes clear they only mean freedom to choose those options shortlisted first by superior intellects.
At the end of the book they have preemptively addressed objections to their theory. In a section where they admit to believing in income redistribution as a tool of government, they declare “Some of our most extreme critics offer an objection that will strike many readers as just odd.” This is the nudge to the dense reader that what follows is extreme and odd. They then go on to say that some people are against all forced income redistribution (gasp). Damn straight! I tire of libs such as these characterizing us as close-minded if we believe in the strict limitation of the government to its specifically enumerated powers. As if we hold these beliefs out of sheer stubbornness.
In sum, as frustrating and, at times, insulting as this book was, the problems I have with their premise are all within the confines of actions by our federal government. I think some of these ideas are much better suited to government on a local or state level. Around the time I read this book, I happened to read a column by P.J. O’Rourke, some of which seemed amusingly apropos to this topic: