Nudge, nudge


What is all this talk about 'nudging' in politics?

Top figures in the Conservative Party (as well as the Obama campaign in the US) have become very interested in the ideas popularized by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.  Apparently, Thaler and Cass  "show that by knowing how people think, we can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society."

Looking at it from a distance, the fact that politicians don't want to appear to be messing around with our lives is a good thing. At present people are fed up with politicians clumsily trying to institute blanket policies to change the way that we live. Instead, politicians now want to unobtrusively nudge us in this direction and that, for our own good, for the good of our families and society at large.

Nudging though is not really anything new. If all the rhetoric is dispensed with, the same questions need to be asked. Will the policy be effective? Does it overstep the limits of state action?

For instance – automatically enrolling employees in savings schemes, giving them the choice of opting out, rather than asking them actively to join in the first place, could, given the right circumstances, be good government policy that does not overstep the state’s boundaries.

On the other hand, Professor Julian Le Grand, a pioneer of this approach, has some utterly illiberal ideas. He wants to require smokers to have a special permit, enforce an 'exercise hour' at work, and ban salt in processed food. That this goes under the anachronistic term ‘libertarian-paternalism’ is surely some sort of joke.

People can still feel a nudge. Although it better than a push, it is still largely unwelcome.