Policy-by-nudging unsupported by evidence, and undemocratic

In a New Scientist op-ed, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi take aim at the trendy idea of "nudging" people towards healthy, socially beneficial choices. The authors find the evidence for the effectiveness of nudging isn't supported by the literature, and policy-by-nudging misses the key to good governance: an informed citizenry who are part of the solution, not the problem to be solved.

This points to the key problem with "nudge" style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats' prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.

As political scientist Suzanne Mettler, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, argues, libertarian paternalism treats people as consumers rather than citizens. It either fails to tell people why choices are set up in particular ways, or actively seeks to conceal the rationale. When, for example, Obama's administration temporarily cut taxes to stimulate the economy, it did so semi-surreptitiously to encourage people to spend rather than save.

Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information. This suggests a far stronger role for democratic decision-making than libertarian paternalism allows. People should be given information, and allowed to reach conclusions about their own interests, and how to structure choices to protect those interests. By all means consult experts, but the dialogue should go both ways.

'Nudge' policies are another name for coercion


  1. presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves

    Also the presumption that the technocrats actually know what’s best to begin with. And wouldn’t any policy – whether nudging or not – imposed from the top down be undemocratic by definition?

    1. Well, I mean– I’d counter by pointing out that democracy isn’t an unqualified “good thing,” that we live in a republic.  Top down is how it is supposed to work, but with the top being accountable to the bottom.

  2. >Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information.

    Anyone who’s studied behavioural economics in the slightest knows experiments of this kind are not fit to speak as a general rule.

    In fact, the lazy adage that “education” and “information” is the key to solving all issues (unemployment, health issues, crime) has been shown to be false. Education works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t.

    There was a study done on doctors in a Los Angeles Hospital, where the doctors performed much worse at hand washing than the nursing staff. The “education” answer would be simply to inform doctors that washing hands reduces the number of patient deaths. But they’re already supposed to know washing their hands is important, yet they do it less than nurses who are supposedly less educated. Clearly other things are of value besides knowledge and information.

    There are hundreds of seemingly trivial issues that can promote or discourage hand washing, and hundreds of other vital tasks in our society. Just because education trumps other solutions in some instances, does not mean it does it in all, and that “nudging” never works.

    This is nothing more than the fallacy of the single cause.

  3. Well, given the articles conclusions and the conclusions of others offered here, my policy of yelling and hitting people with a rolled up magazine to modify their behaviour would appear to be the only one that actually works.

    I therefor ask for funding for a larger, more impressive magazine to strike people with.  I would also note that a rolled up copy of an ikea catalogue, while impressive, is not a magazine and also I have concerns that corporate sponsorship would get in the way of proper institution of public policy in this case.

    Also, no fashion magazines because they are for girls.

  4. There are plenty of examples out there where an individual is better off acting selfishly, but if everyone acts according to their own self interests, it’s bad for society as a whole.   You need a central authority to get everyone to act in a certain way so society as a whole is better off.  The tragedy of the commons.   It can be the old example of chopping down the trees on the commons for fire wood.  Or it can be vaccines.  Or it can be dumping your used motor oil in the storm drain.  The list of examples can go on and on.  You need a central authority to nudge people to do the right thing for society, even when it’s against their own selfish interests.

    1. Except that in all of those instances, given a reliable information source (and no, modern for profit mass media is anything but reliable as they are beholden the monied interests thanks to being profit driven), people will grasp the damage their actions cause. The game theoretical, almost randian, myopia on selfishness is making the average mental timescale too short term.

  5. This is simply wrong. There is plenty of reason to believe that some nudging can have more positive effects than education alone.

    Take higher gas taxes, a classic form of “nudging.” Is there anyone in America who hasn’t been informed that burning petrol affects the environment and causes dependence on unstable and corrupt governments around the world? People have heard this, but they either don’t believe it or believe it but don’t significantly change their driving habits.

    Higher gas prices, on the other hand, cause quite a strong reduction in driving and a greater demand for fuel-efficient cars. There is strong evidence for this here in America, where “Freeway motorists adjust to higher prices by making fewer trips and by driving more slowly,” and evidence for this in the greater numbers of fuel-efficient cars in Europe, where gas taxes are higher.

    So there’s a strong case that a gas tax “nudge” would indeed nudge people towards a socially beneficial choice.

    The same, of course, goes for taxing pollution (nudging companies to pollute less), taxing HFCS (making sodas more expensive, as Mark Bittman keeps advocating) and similar nudges.

    You want to claim this is “paternalism?” Sure, go ahead. I’d prefer paternalism that saved the planet over the short-sighted selfishness of the supposedly “educated” population.

    1. Interesting that you should mention taxing HFCS, as the current deluge of the stuff is driven pretty directly by corn subsidies.

      The government already “nudges” every time it chooses to tax or subsidize anything (unless I’ve compeletely misunderstood what’s meant by nudging).  I’m not sure how it’s bad to factor considerations like public health into these decisions.

  6. No shit people are treated as consumers. The words consumer and consume have become shorthand for any transaction between a individual and some legal entity these days. I wonder if it is a side effect of the economists vocabulary using consume as a label for any spending not directly aimed towards future gain. End result is that even activities that do not have “destructive” end result gets seen as such before it is labeled as the same activity as eating or drinking. I swear, the level of obfuscation and doubletalk in modern economics is nothing short of toxic to the social fabric.

  7. Interesting comments folks. If you want to relate this Economics it comes down to the idea that everything a person does has a cost and a benefit. It could be a monetary cost, environmental cost, spiritual cost etc.
    Now if these costs are accurately measured is another problem, but back to the idea that this is not democratic is partly true.
    The laws and policies that “nudge” people are only as good as the people that write/enforce the laws and policies.
    There are lines on the roads to guide you to keep in your lane to prevent accidents. Was this put to a vote in every town that built a new road? Not everything in a democracy can be put to a public vote, that is why we elect politicians to make decisions.
    Life and democracy is messy, you can’t put everything/everyone on a straight line to conform to every notion in the country. Isn’t that why the laws vary from state to state? We don’t all sit in a big room and vote on every change.
    I can understand that people would react this way, but it comes across as small minded thinking. Yes we live in a democracy, but it is not a pure democracy. Some decisions are made by boards, judges, mayors and the police.

  8. One problem is what information are you going to give the citizens?  Republicans will tell them that global warming is a myth and regulations are killing our economy.  So Democrats can either dispute that and have it handled in the media as he said /she said, or try to enact policy that will effect these problems when they have the power to.

    Another problem is that humans aren’t rational, people that don’t wear seat belts are not ignorant of how they might go through the windshield in a crash.  They either forget or are inconvenienced by wearing one.

    Yes, in a perfect world you could tell people to buckle their seat belts and use more efficient light bulbs, but if those cost money or someone else tells the citizen it’s stupid to do that, policy is really the only route isn’t it?

  9. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t start a punk band called The Disincentives when I was in public policy grad school.

  10. Also, this concept hardly new or “trendy.”  Virtually every policy decision on what is taxed or eligible for tax credits and deduction is nudging by policy.  

  11. “Nudge” sounds like a pretty broad term.  Are we counting “nudges” like “we’ll put you in jail if you kill somebody?”  I mean, no, probably not, but you can keep sliding the scale till it seems more reasonable.  Are punitive damages in civil cases “nudges?”  Taxes on cigarettes I’m guessing are.  Are all tariffs “nudges?”  I’m leery of any argument whose terms are undefined.

  12. What about all the research that indicates we are not that rational when it comes to decision making?  What about the fact that people do what they know is not in their best interests anyway?  Sin taxes may nudge some people but there is still lots of drinking, smoking and drug use.  I think that assuming that everyone can make the best decision in all cases is foolish.  We rarely have complete information and many people lack the education or experience to make every decision about life.

  13. Of course people make the best decision when properly informed. That’s why the US still uses the imperial measurement system. If I recall, metric ( everything multiples of ten) was considered “too hard” by the us public- who prefer the completely arbitrary imperial system. Or any ten things that have been attempted in the last 5 years that the public got up in arms about despite how bleeding obvious it is that it’s the best choice.

    Or if we want to talk consumer choices, how about how TVs with glossy screens heavily outsell matte screens even though in most homes, matte screens allow you to see your show as opposed to reflections of the whole house. The consumer saw both, and still bought the one that is less effective.

    1. Great example of the knowledge of the commoners about their day to day problems vs. the knowledge of the aristocrats and technocrats.  The Imperial measurement system may be many things, but it is not arbitrary.  If the metric system’s base 10 were really so much better as we were told, then why is it that when I order material from Europe or Asia they have reverted back to having most of them measured in base 12 units again (e.g. sheet metal in 1.2m x 2.4m)?  Does the US continuation of Imperial units reflect that we aren’t as sophisticated, or that it was the one nation where the political elites of the day didn’t have enough power over the “dumb” ol’ tradesmen to make them use the much prettier (theoretically so anyway) metric system that the elites were just sure would prove to be better once it has been in use for a generation.

  14. “Nudging” makes me think of nagging which leads me to picturing the Helicopter parents who’s children have gone to college and grown up directing their energy (craziness) towards the general public.

  15. This is not so modern of a concept.  There was a bright group of international socialists in Europe last century who figured out that their system didn’t work as advertised.  They made a number of changes in their political philosophy and approach to make it less “pie in the sky” more practical, such as dumping the appeal for international worker solidarity.  Their big economic innovation was to do away with the idea of the gov’t owning the means of production.  It turns out that while that sounds great in practice the communist nations were having a huge problem economically because a central group of planners just couldn’t know enough about everything going on and the complexities of a national supply chain to distribute goods efficiently without help from market forces (now we’d call that an information problem where the prices determine by the marketplace are more efficient than the dictates of the ‘cathedral’).  Instead they based their economic system on retaining the illusion of private ownership of businesses and therefore allowing private businessmen to solve all the little problems of what supplier to use and how many of what people to hire… but then use regulation to shove… er… nudge those ‘private businesses and laborers’ in in whatever direction they wanted.  The big shots would still get to control (and skim off) the economy in general but no longer needed to worry about every little detail like the full blooded commies did.   They called their innovation ‘fascism’ because that word hadn’t yet come to mean ‘anything really bad’ and therefore they didn’t need to come up with the new  term ‘nudge’ for it.

    I hear it made the trains run on time. 

    (And since they had moved a little to the right of their old international socialists comrades by allowing some private ownership and replacing the appeal for international unity with national unity, they have since been derided by them as “right wing”… and causing me to have to explain hundreds of times that libertarianism does NOT lead to fascism!)

  16. I’m impressed that Farrell and Shalizi can write an entire op-ed opposed to “nudge” policies without giving a single example of where such a policy has gone wrong, whether by being ineffective or by actually amounting to “coercion”.

    And impressed with how they cite the work of Suzanne Mettler of Cornell without naming any publication where we could go to independently verify that her work supports their thesis. This op-ed is one step removed from “some people say” journalism.

  17. “Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information.”
    Well, of course – for an isolated experiment.  The problem with Mettler’s thinking here (and the objection that giving citizens more information will solve problems without flawed paternalism) is that human attention is a scarce resource.

    When a subject is in an experiment, they know where they should be directing their attention.  In real life, though, we make bad choices all the time.  There just isn’t time to  do thorough research on every subject that affects your life.  And when people do pay attention, they often pay attention to the wrong things.

    For sure, there are a lot of problems with some species of paternalism.  But this article attacks straw men (“Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions”: my understanding of libertarian paternalism is that it always leaves an option for people to change their minds about the choices made) and undermines itself with ridiculous assertions (namely, the title.)  

  18. I am surprised that no one here has mentioned the incredible failure of the nudge policy we lovingly call the War on Drugs.

    People do have the right to chose not to wear their seat belt, eat fast food, abort their fetuses or do anything else to themselves that does not directly damagect their neighbor or their neighbors property. If our society has become so fragile that it cannot bear the weight of pot smoking, gay marriage, obeseity or other personal choices, then our society is too fragile indeed.

    I’m still trying to figure out what “libertarian paternalism” is. Isn’t libertarianism the doctrine of personal freedom, not facist government oversight?

    1. I am surprised that no one here has mentioned the incredible failure of the nudge policy we lovingly call the War on Drugs.

      It’s sort of weird that the US has gone to great lengths over the last half-century to avoid using the “W” word to describe our armed, overseas conflicts, but uses it to describe actions against its own citizens.

    2. “I’m still trying to figure out what “libertarian paternalism” is. Isn’t libertarianism the doctrine of personal freedom, not facist government oversight?”
      The article is not at all clear about what “libertarian paternalism” is.  As I understand the term (and I am recalling an old Economist feature) “libertarian paternalism” is about making allegedly beneficial default choices for people.  (The “default” part is important.) 

      For example, many people do not contribute to retirement savings plans, to their detriment.  When money is withheld by default and put into their savings plans, more people save for retirement.  They have the option to withdraw or opt out of the program, however.  The money is still theirs.

      But the article seems to deal with a broad range of definitions of libertarian paternalism, all the while tarring them with the same brush. 

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