October 01, 2008

‘Nudge’ – Libertarian Paternalism or Oxymoron?


If politicians are reading anything this summer, its Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’, cited by both sides of the Commons as heralding a distinctive shift in political thinking and policy.

Of course, governments have been trying to dictate society’s behaviour for time immorium - heavy taxation on perceived negative externalities and strict regulation is proof of that.  But where Thaler and Sunstein have departed from previous idea is in their hope to integrate voluntarism with government direction in a way that both preserves individual liberty in the face of particularly ‘Green Authoritarianism’ and the Market Economy.  Thus rather than legislating, ‘Nudge’ urges governments to encourage social responsibility in a way that echoes the age of communitarianism ushered in by New Labour and has been adopted by the Conservatives in their promotion of ‘Voluntary platoons’, where services ordinarily provided by the state are conducted by charitable organisations.

This raises the question - is ‘Nudge’ new?  Governments have urged people to voluntarily ‘help themselves’ since the days of Samuel Smiles, when Post Office Saving Accounts were created to encourage ‘thrift’.  Therefore rather than being libertarian, ‘Nudge’ has been attacked as being a cynical re-marketing of paternalism, which would ordinarily be incompatible in a Market Economy, where deference is dead and individual need placed above society’s.

And with good reason.  The notion of gaining voluntary consent for a government initiative goes beyond mere 'agenda setting' and increasingly  resembles Lukes’ third face of power - ideological control.  This is worryingly revealed by the logic behind the ‘Nudge’ itself.  The fact that a ‘Nudge’ would be conducted by representatives elected by voters who have not already voluntarily reversed perceived social costs indicates that any ‘Nudge’ would in fact be conducted against the individual’s interest.  For some therefore, rather than representing, politicians would therefore serve as ideologues assuming an authority above their electors.

Nudge is therefore a form of ideological paternalism that demands rather than depends upon individual commitment.


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