Intended to steer people towards better decisions, the ideas of Nudge theory are meant to offer choices, while still getting us to do what the government thinks is best. Its pioneers, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of Nudge, say they advocate for "soft paternalism." By attempting to combine concerns about choice with paternalist incentives, they arrive at the bizarre construct of "libertarian paternalism." Since July 2010, the U.K.'s Behavioral Insights Unit (or "Nudge Unit"), which puts their theories into practice, has merely allowed the state to expand its reach.
Now Thaler says he has "enthusiasm" for a new U.S. version of the Nudge Unit. Thaler calls the new federal team a "similar initiative" and believes that it makes "sense for social scientists to become more involved in policy." The U.S. team's leader, Maya Shankar, has been meeting with members of the U.K. team to exchange ideas and share research.
On this side of the Atlantic, we were told Nudge offered "encouraging, supporting and enabling people" through improved "choice architecture." If that sort of language doesn't set all kinds of alarm bells ringing, then perhaps the unit's track record will.
The Behavioral Insights Team boasts that it helps people make better decisions about their health. In order to do so, the unit has introduced a raft of measures to restrict consumer choice.
Bans on shop displays of tobacco products, cited as a success of the team in their 2010–11 annual report impose severe costs on smokers. Customers find it hard to determine which shops sell their preferred cigarettes at a glance and asking the cashier for your favorite brand takes on the feel of a back alley deal.
These anti-smoking interventions are justified on the grounds of cost saving, but the evidence suggests that smokers cost the U.K.'s healthcare system far less than non-smokers. Phony arguments about cost serve as excuses to victimize people trying to engage in a legal activity.
The next year, the unit began to focus on alcohol use and patted themselves on the back in their 2011–12 annual report. The team congratulated itself for trying to understand the "longer term effects of alcohol marketing … particularly on young people" and exploring the "impacts of different prices" on alcohol consumption.
While plans for a minimum price on alcoholic products have been shelved, the government is now likely to prevent liquor being sold below cost. Simultaneously, the government has reduced duties on beer, while upping the rates on higher strength drinks. You're free to drink, but do try to drink what the bureaucrats prefer you to.
Don't think that food is untouched either. The Nudge Unit has been getting supermarkets to cooperate in reducing the salt content in many of its meals. It's worth remembering that these agreements are far from voluntary—any business that does not comply may face a regulatory penalty as a result.
When it comes to what we eat, interference is inescapable. You can avoid alcohol and tobacco, but food is somewhat more essential. Governments have already shown their incompetence with their adherence to poorly formulated food pyramids, which take no account of how different individuals are affected by dairy or grains.
Federal advice often lags well behind the nutritional evidence, and neglects the important debates between scientists. This is convenient for bureaucrats, who don't want to admit that such controversy exists. If experts can't agree on what works, then how can the state pick a winner? The health lobby consensus may be wrong on salt as well.
A more troubling thread runs through each of these interventions. The Nudge team has completely disregarded the enjoyment that customers get from tobacco, alcohol, and salt. It's crass to suggest that people aren't aware of associated health risks.
Here the standard liberal arguments apply. Even if the government can engineer our choices, are bureaucrats well-placed to make decisions for us? Probably not.
If those behind Nudge are serious about reducing the burden of "hard" paternalism imposed on us, then they should be supporting a scaling back of the state. While the UK unit makes nods towards the government's declared deregulation agenda, known as "the Red Tape Challenge," their work is increasing the size of the state, not freeing us up.
For all their praise of trial and error, the Nudge Unit wishes to steer us down a path to uniformity. Having identified what they think are the best choices for us, and recognizing the hostility to state control, social scientists now believe they can nudge us into conforming with their idea of the good life.
This is no surprise. It's well know that social scientists fail to be objective and their work often expresses their own ideological biases. Some in the US may even be happy with a less dictatorial method to get us to comply. Yet in the U.K., Nudge–think has begun to permeate government structures, and brings with it a sour taste. We've not just been nudged, we've been pushed.