Nudge nudge, wink wink


nudgenudgeProfessor Richard Thaler, fons et origo of the 'nudge' philosophy, says that we would drink less if, instead of each buying a round, we set up a tab and shared it at the end of the evening. This is undoubtedly true. My brother, a pub regular, once explained to me how publicans could make more money by setting up larger tables, encouraging larger groups to coalesce and buy rounds for each other.

Professor Thaler is of course the inspiration for the Prime Minister's 'Behavioural Insight Team', which exists to remind us of such things as this, and indeed to 'nudge' us into doing things that are good for us by skewing the choices that we face in our daily lives.

Personally, I reckon that behavioural insight, nudging, or doing good for ourselves should begin at home. If we had a smaller government, it would be far less likely to interfere in parts of our lives where politicians have no business. Had the telephones, shipbuilding, carmaking, and even the state brewery not been privatized, I am sure that ministers would still be getting Questions in the House about interference on party lines in the Hebrides, rivetters' wage differentials, and daily production figures for a whole host of failing industries. We would never have stopped politicians from meddling in them on a daily basis. Fortunately, these industries – all of which are 'properly commercial enterprises' as Adam Smith put it – were taken out of the political sector, and there is now much less politician interference in how they are run.

The same should be true of other enterprises, like the Royal Mail, the water industry in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and much else identified by Nigel Hawkins in his ASI report on privatization. But it is also true of service industries like health, education, and maybe even welfare. It is true of much of what we call social services, where voluntary organizations should have an important role but are crowded out by officialdom. In planning, where decisions should be made more locally and more by agreement than by centralized government rules. Big government breeds bigger government, because the army of officials can always think of new things they ought to be controlling. We need to convince politicians that, in so many areas of life, the best thing they can do for us is simply to butt out and leave the activity to the people. I would certainly be happy to give them a nudge in that direction.