Nanny State

British Nannies Show the Way for Nudging Americans in the "Right" Direction

Libertarian paternalism is already British policy, and it's coming soon to a government agency near you!



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.

NEXT: Domestic Policy Falls by the Wayside in Syria War Debate

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  1. I hate to see a good D10 associated with the parasitism of Sunstein and his ilk! The victims of the “nudge” crowd will find that the dozer pushing them is powered by their own incredulity.

    1. Agree, that thing would be more useful for removing a few government agency buildings in DC.

    2. Did you tell me you have a fetish for lever actions? I brought home a new Win ’94 in 30-30 friday. Used and a real plain jane but in excellent condition. I have 14 of them now in varios calibers.

      1. Cass Sunstein would not approve.

      2. Holy shit! I just have my dad’s trusty Marlin 336 (of course in 30-30). Looking for something in .357 Mag. I know Henry and Rossi make them.

        Lever guns r fun.

        1. 357?
          I had one but it shot like a pistol, not enough power for hunting. I currently hunt fairly regularly with a 44mag..’94 with a 24in barrel. It is smooth as a sewing machine and plenty of punch for bambi

          1. .357 is plenty for hunting. You just have to keep yourself to within 100 yards or so. There’s also Buffalo Bore loads that generate as much power out of a rifle as a .30-30.

        2. Browning makes a really cool lever action in practically any caliber you want.
          It’s only 3 or 4 plus 1, depending on caliber, and has a take down feature.

        3. Have a 7mm Mauser my granddad brought back from Europe in the middle 40’s but he sporterized it. Ewwww.

      3. Never cared for the lever actions. I prefer a nice bolt-action. Especially old military surplus bolt-actions.

        And those Mosin-Nagants are so cheap right now it’s a shame I only own a few of them. Hmm… there is a gun show around here in a couple weeks, maybe I’ll buy a couple more.

        1. I call it “The Stalinator”

          Surely you’ve seen Stuff you know if you have a Mosin Nagant

          1. Who ever came up with that list is a genius.

            By the way whats with the AR vs AK debates that seem so common on gun forums?

            Why not a Mauser vs Mosin-Nagant debate?

            1. By the way whats with the AR vs AK debates that seem so common on gun forums?

              It basically boils down to TEAM mentality, much like Ford v. Chevy.

              1. True, and the truth is they are two completely different philosophies for a battlefield weapon. The AR was designed to be light at the expense of just about all else. The AK was designed to be reliable at the expense of just about all else. One is a professional soldier’s weapon, the other is an insurgent’s weapon.

        2. Best gun evah.

        3. My Mosin-Nagant cost $79, then antoher $70 at the gunsmith to make the action not take a sledgehammer to operate. It is by far the loudest gun in my collection, sounding like a cannon even with ear protection (easily beating even my .308) and is the only one to ever actually bruise my shoulder after a day at the range. Though hearing it echo over the hills was fun. Since the soviet varnish kept coming off on my hands, I complete refinished the stock (probably putting more care in than the line workers did) and I’ll bet it works better now than when it came off the Izmash assembly line in 1943.

          Plus, I think the guy at the sporting goods store recorded the wrong serial number on the federal forms, putting the soviet number instead of the importer’s number.

          1. I bought mine for $69 and then paid about $10 for a bottle of denatured alcohol to soak the bolt and scrub the chamber. My bolt pops open immediately. Sorry to say, but I think you got screwed on the gunsmithing job.

            Who here bought Mosins by the case when they were $1000 a few years ago? I am wishing now that I did.

      4. No lever actions, but I had my new 22/45 out this morning. Much fun to shoot, but now I’m dreading cleaning it.

        I’m shooting from a bulk pack of .22LR that I bought around 10 or 11 years ago. 525 rounds, price on it is $9.99

        1. It’s gonna be filthy, especially if you shot the Remington .22s. They are dirty as ****.

          1. Yup. And it’s pretty much guaranteed to give me at least a few cuts and blood blisters. Ah well.

      5. That’s a healthy collection of lever guns. Yes I am the lever enthusiast, they’re so challenging and fun to shoot. I recently saw a cherry Buffalo Bill 30-30 at the Cabelas superstore in the middle of nowhere (Western Nebraska), didn’t buy it but wish I had.

        Sometime I’ll get around to buying the better replicas of the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Yellowboy.

      6. I have 14 of them now in various calibers.

        I have three. All are plain except for slings, all used, all in .30-30. One is from about 1960, one from the late 1970s and one from 1990. I just had the oldest one hot-blued. The local smith here did a beautiful job of it with some new commercial process he wanted to try out.

  2. What clever ideas! I’m amazed no one ever thought of them before.

  3. The health lobby consensus may be wrong on salt as well.

    May? Halving your salt intake (which is a huge change) has been demonstrated to lower your BP by 1.1/0.06, which is clinically insignificant.

  4. My upset special of the day – Carolina (+3) over Seattle.

    1. The Sea Chickens will kick their asses.

    2. We’ve put our house on it.

      Palin’s Buttplug| 9.2.13 @ 5:57PM |#

      If everyone agreed with me I would quit posting.

      1. Who is my stalker? I thought it was John but he is absent today.

        1. Just a guy who wants you to follow through on your promise.

          (hint: it’s not me.)

          1. Even fish agrees with us, and, by extension, with Shrike. Welcome, to the collective, fish!

        2. “Who is my stalker?”

          Good sense?

          1. “Who is my stalker?”

            Atlas shrugs.

          2. You and I both know Shrike is both repelled by and repellent to Good Sense.

        3. OBAMA WAR-FAGS!!!!!!!!!!lindsey, john, susan, nancy, diane, cass, samantha, harry boner, kerry, george, joe dick, hillary.

          IS PB a member?

        4. MUST BE A BUSHPIG!!!1!!!!!!!1!

    3. My upset special of the day – Carolina (+3) over Seattle.

      Oohhhh……just a bit outside!

  5. It’s crass to suggest that people aren’t aware of associated health risks.

    But do they understand that the health risks they’re taking can negatively affect the collective?

    1. I have a thought on that.

      Fuck the collective.

      1. What he said. Considering how often the collective fucks up, they have no right to whine about individual actions.

  6. OK, so I ordered pink golf balls online because they were cheap and easy to find in high grass, and ever since then the mail-order bride ads at Reason have been replaced with Loreal hair treatment ads and now an ad warning me that Ken Cucinelli is going to take away the right to choose. WTF? One errant purchase and I’m pigeonholed?

    1. Hey….if the golf shoe fits.

      1. Buy one bikini online, and Brilliant Earth will stalk you across the Internet with glossy photos of their custom engagement rings.

        Obviously some kind of conspiracy.

  7. Nudging works best using the threat of regulatory action:

    See the UK ISP porn filter. It was an ultimatum by the government of: “regulate yourselves by providing this filter if you don’t want us to regulate you”.

    See the Comics Code Authority:

    The Comics Code Authority was formed by the Comics Magazine Association of America, to allow the comic publishers to self-regulate the content of comic books in the United States but its code, commonly called “the Comics Code,” was ultimately abandoned by every major comic book publisher by the early 21st century. It was formed as an alternative to government regulation. Many have linked the CCA’s formation to the publication of Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent.

    For many decades, the only way to get comics that were not filled with Ned Flanders-like super heroes were underground comics or foreign comics

    1. See the MPAA and much more stricter ESRB, with theaters and game makers (mandated on consoles) and retailers being compelled to comply:

      The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly Interactive Digital Software Association), in response to criticism of violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, Doom, and other controversial video games portraying excessively violent or intense sexual situations.

      A Critical Analysis of Joe Lieberman’s 1993 Senate Committee Hearings on Videogames
      (more at the c-span link)

      The FTC also regularly conducts secret shopper tests:

      all to see how well retailers and the industry complies with such a “voluntary” system, because you don’t want to be subject to another round of hearings again now do you?

      “We didn’t want to get into the regulation game; we invited the gaming industry to regulate itself.” — Joe Lieberman

      1. — Joe Lieberman

        One of the biggest piles of crap to ever grace the Senate. Goodbye and good riddance, nanny state loser. The only bad thing is that you didn’t take McCain with you.

  8. Why on Earth is the government trying to nudge people away from smoking? Smoking is the perfect 21st century Darwinism: if you willingly choose to put cigarettes in your body (which you should absolutely be able to do), you’re stupid enough that you deserve the financial sinkhole that medicine will become and, of course, long, protracted and painful death.

    I suppose as long as we have socialized healthcare, I don’t want to be paying for someone else’s treatments so their should be fewer smokers, but in a perfect world where it was every man for himself, for entertainment I’d sit and eat popcorn as I watched the lungs of smokers rot.

    Oh to live in such a world.

    1. Actually, smoking REDUCES health care costs over one’s whole life due to the shortened life expectancy.

      Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position.

    1. Say no more.

  9. Yo, massa – Ima nudge you to suck my motherfuckin’ dick.

  10. Time to go for another spin on the trusty Honda XR650! Carbureted, air cooled, no electronics for the NSA to track….

  11. Not News: 107 year old man dies.
    News: In shootout with police

    1. Heroes!


  12. 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 give government deniability that it was the cause of actions that turned out to have negative consequences, and hide the size and scope of government from those who worry about such things.


  13. The Nudge team has completely disregarded the enjoyment that customers get from tobacco, alcohol, and salt.

    Puritans with new costumes.

    1. “Mister Ed debuts his vaudeville act at Furry Con 2013.”

      1. Yours is better.

    2. Ed was uncomfortable with what he was doing, but he knew what would happen if he showed up with a prostitute for his boss that wasn’t flat as a 14 year old boy.

    3. Kerry shocks Hillary out of the ’16 Dem race!

  14. Dr. Horse demonstrates his life saving technique on a member of the warren at FurryCon 2013

  15. We have Nudge Units in the United States of America. They are called pigs. And if you don’t nudge yourself where they tell you, then they will kill you. Apparently this license to murder pretty much nudges everyone else right along.

  16. For all their praise of trial and error, the Nudge Unit wishes to steer us down a path to uniformity.

    Living that Progressive dream.

  17. Privacy Scandal: NSA Can Spy on Smart Phone Data

    SPIEGEL has learned from internal NSA documents that the US intelligence agency has the capability of tapping user data from the iPhone, devices using Android as well as BlackBerry, a system previously believed to be highly secure.

    1. a system previously believed to be highly secure.

      Does anyone, anywhere, actually believe that there are highly secure systems available to the US public at this point?

      1. Well if there is a highly secure system available, they will probably ban it in the near future. Of course you can still resort to one time pads.

      2. Not in smartphones. There are open source OSes I’d trust to be free of NSA backdoors.

        That’s still pretty far from having a system that’s resistant to focused NSA attention, though.

      3. In a previous life I’ve worked on a custom (i.e. for telecom companies) VoIP product made by Siemens: the developer of such products are required by law to provide tapping capability. I would be greatly surprised if the same requirement wasn’t in place for the developers/manufacturers of end-user products.

  18. -Bans on shop displays of tobacco products

    A ban is not a ‘nudge.’ It is the same old coercion.

    1. Well, yes, but they’re not coercing the customer, just the vendor.

      And in that particular line of insanity, that makes it all better.

  19. -Poverty drains brains while it empties pocketbooks, a new study concludes.

    Money worries consume poor people’s attention, dramatically undermining their performance on IQ-related tests of reasoning and mental control, say economist Anandi Mani of the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, and her colleagues. Among the poor, but not the rich, evoking financial concerns damages reasoning abilities about as much as going a night without sleep or losing 13 IQ points, Mani’s team reports in the Aug. 30 Science.

    Shortly after reaping a financial windfall, poor individuals perform far better on the same mental tests. That improvement may be thanks partly to temporary freedom from money concerns, the scientists propose.

    Their findings follow evidence that scarcity of money (or anything else important) promotes short-term thinking, helping to explain why poor people generally save too little and borrow too much….._abilities

    1. My guess is the researchers are picking up on a larger “stress makes you stupid” effect, which isn’t particularly surprising. A wealthy investment banker might not show a negative effect when prepped about money, but what if you asked him about an SEC investigation?

      The lesson here is control your expectations, live within your means, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

      1. And that starvation isn’t perhaps the best way to motivate poor people to get a job.

        1. Good thing nobody’s starving. Hard to tell sometimes whether these studies are about real poverty (not getting food, water, shelter) or 1st-world poverty (60% of the median income). The solution to both is free-market capitalism, though, by creating opportunities in the former case and motive in the latter.

          Anyway, to you so-called point, the “should I get a job or not?” question falls under those “easy problems”, as in (from the study)…

          On easy [financial] problems, rich and poor groups scored similarly.

      2. What is perverse, is their assumption that “thinking about money = short-term thinking”. Bull-fucking-shit, if you want to make money you’ve got to think big and long-range.

        It’s the short-range, concrete-bound mentality which causes one to be broke–not the other way around.

        1. “Bull-fucking-shit, if you want to make money you’ve got to think big and long-range.”

          Or you could become an athlete or entertainer. Speaking of which, the fact that those two wealthy groups end up broke after making just as awful financial decisions as poor people seems to contradict the study, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if there’s something else that causes both poor financial IQ and poverty (like, perhaps, a frivolous attitude toward money).

    1. So does Sevo acknowledge the Cage’s existence?

  20. I don’t mind a nudge. The problem is that the people behind this don’t recognize the difference between a nudge and a shove.

    A nudge is labeling the low-salt potato chips “Healthy Choice” (even though they may not be). Requiring potato chip manufacturers to restrict salt content is not a nudge, but a shove.

    A nudge is making the “organ donation” option when getting a driver’s license opt-out instead of opt-in – but when the clerk enters that you didn’t opt out even though you did, and you have to assert your rights to get them to change it, and then they change it back when you’re not looking, and you have to do it again – that’s not a nudge, that’s a shove. (It didn’t happen to me on organ donation, but it did happen when I was in the military and they repeatedly signed me up for life insurance and made deductions from my paycheck even though I repeatedly turned it down.)

    So, a nudge is not a problem – but a shove is, and paternalists are too used to shoving people around to recognize the difference.

    On the other hand, it is still better than what they used to do (and mostly still do), which is just to force people to do what they like.

    1. There is no meaningful difference when one ALWAYS leads to the other.

  21. Too bad an unwarranted nudge can’t be justly answered with a hay-maker.

  22. You’re free to drink, but do try to drink what the bureaucrats prefer you to.

    I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I drink whatever the man with a gun tells me to!

    1. Stay subservient, my friends!

  23. How does one apply for a job on a Nudge Unit? Because I can’t recall the names on any ballot I’ve seen.

  24. OT I’ve reached the age where AARP keeps mailing me crap. Anyone have an idea of a Libertarian-ish version I could look at?

    1. Man Up and Die?

    2. Yeah, moi aussi. I throw out the AARP shit (but always mail back their postage-paid envelopes so it costs them some money).

      I’ve heard of AMAC – haven’t bothered to sign up, but you might want to check them out if interested in such a group.…..-to-aarp-2

  25. For all their praise of trial and error, the Nudge Unit wishes to steer us down a path to uniformity.

    Silly Mr. Spence, their praise for trial and error isn’t your trial and error, but theirs. If you make a bad decision before settling in on a better one, its evidence that you can’t be trusted to make your own decisions. If they nudge you into a poor decision, it’s good intentions and all.

  26. Let’s just go on ahead an nudge our way into totalitarianism. They don’t even hide the fact that government is a one-way ratchet anymore. More more more. That’s the answer.

  27. I suppose if your “choice architecture” doesn’t change in the right way quickly enough, you will be sent to “reeducation camps”, and if that doesn’t work, you’re obviously mentally ill and need to be institutionalized. Yeah, we’ve heard that before.

    I like my “choice architecture” the way it is, thank you very much.

  28. Atlantic, we were told Nudge offered

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