A few days ago I attended a “Future Trends” conference. As a digital consultant I need to keep on top of what other people think and feel are the trends influencing brands and people online. I was deeply dismayed by the last presentation of the day. It focused on the (further) rise of the “nudge” culture.
The nudge concept has been popularised by both Obama and Cameron. Both rely on advisers who firmly believe that regulation through nudging is the way to push people towards “positive” behaviour – so positive that it benefits not only the individual, but society as a whole. The idea, as laid out in the eponymous book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, is that because humans have many decisions to make, and often make those decisions poorly, government needs to design an environment in which we are encouraged or “nudged” to make better decisions.
Aside from the enlarged role that the nanny state would play in a nudge society, a far more dangerous idea is at work – that an elite group is better informed and can make better decisions about an individual’s life than the individual herself.
How can we think that politicians and bureaucrats possess sufficient knowledge to plan society through nudging? Hayek showed that such planning could never work because no one person or group of bureaucrats could possibly hold all the necessary knowledge to allocate resources efficiently and according to the subjective wants of individuals. Indeed, we all hold tacit knowledge that we can’t articulate, but nevertheless influences our decision making in many ways (see Polanyi, 1969). In this context, it is unsurprising that government attempts to control and regulate typically prove to be harmful and counterproductive.
So the idea that an elite group can design a society so that it influences people in a “positive” way is highly questionable. Who but the individual concerned can truly ascertain what benefits actions or items have? Each and every individual has particular desires and needs upon which decisions are made according to their own experiences, education and influences.
We should fear a nudge culture, be wary of elitists and continue to shun we-think. Being nudged is not far off from being regulated, and relegated, into a totalitarian society.