The problem with Nudge


David Cameron and his Cabinet seem to be much taken with the "Nudge" idea. So do all of Ed Miliband's people as well. The basic idea is that people aren't all that good at making choices of judging risks: therefore they should be nudged into taking the right decision.

That a cabinet of Old Etonians think they should tell the proles what to do is not a surprise, nor a similar desire in a near random bunch of socialists and hangers on. Born or anointed through good intentions, the outcome is the same, the upper middle classes get to tell us what to do.

There is however a real problem with the whole idea: the things that we get nudged to do will inevitably reflect the prejudices of those setting up the nudges. OK, maybe opt out rather than opt in will increase organ donations, maybe opt out will increase pensions savings. And it's an article of faith in certain circles that more organ donations, more saving for pensions, is a good idea. Maybe they are, maybe they're not (and I could put up decent rejections of both propositions).

However, as Eric Falkenstein points out, the nudges will only be in favour of those things which the groupthink of the limited circle thinking them up already regard as obviously desirable goals.

Take something like irradiating eggs, something almost all scientific people agree is good (kills bacteria, no residual radiation). Why not make them the default eggs? They never would argue for that, because it's contrary to the Luddite-leftists who hate technology but love government.

Why isn't GM the default? Why isn't the presumption that planning permission has been granted? Why, under EU law, must I seek permission to make and sell apricot marmalade (yes, really!)?

Another way of putting this is that if we're all bad at making decisions, then why should we enshrine in law one set of wrong prejudices over just leaving the population to follow their own?