A nudge towards totalitarianism?

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.

There are many arguments against ‘nudging’ Who decides ‘right’ behaviour? (e.g. Should young people be auto-enrolled into saving or be paying off their mortgage?). Does nudging undermine free institutions to which people submit themselves to nudge their behaviour? etc. However, to give the original authors their due, I think they believe in replacing current regulation with nudges. This may be misguided but is more benign than the actual practice where nudging is yet another form of interference. For example, we will have auto-enrolment into pensions in addition to state pensions (after the state abolished the situation whereby individuals were free to join companies that auto-enrolled them!)

A ‘totalitarian’ society might be defined as one where there’s almost nothing the government doesn’t interfere in somehow. Even so, I’d rather get suggestions from governments than instructions.I don’t like being told not to smoke in my own flat, but I don’t (much) mind being ‘advised’ that smoking may injure my health (or, more aggressively, that ’smoking KILLS’).(I remember my father saying that he didn’t mind giving advice, as long as it was taken. He could never understand why my younger brother and I found that so amusing!)The idea of nudging, I must admit, does rather conjure up the image of Big Brother (or perhaps, as you suggest, Big Nanny).

I see the ‘nudge’ idea in a rather different way. It is an attempt to give an intellectual basis to what governments in liberal democracies already do, which is why politicians of both left and right find it so appealing. Politicians know they cannot interfere directly without risking ridicule or opposition, so they do it indirectly. The real problem is to suggest that Sunstein and Thaler have actually come up with something original and significant when all it is is pragmatic reaction.

Re-inventing the wheel again? This is an old issue studied by social scientists decades ago. Its democracy at work. Duh! Keep an eye on government or loose your freedom. And this article is doing just that. Keep going.

From one perspective, the alternative to ‘nudging’ that Mr Lazanski posits is a mild version of Hobbesian individualist atomism—a race to the bottom—where all are autonomous and solipsistic. Civil society, however, is usually predicated on shared, inter-dependent responses within living tradition and convention—the framework of Burke’s organic society. As the author (and commentators) have so amply demonstrated, the benefit of nudging as compared to the totalitarianism which he fears is that we are free to accept it or not, either to learn from the experiences and wisdom of others or instead to set upon our own paths.

I’ve read the Sunstein/Thaler book and it’s quite an interesting take on some findings from behavioural economics, a rapidly-growing field. However it uses these findings, which are capable of more than one interpretation, to push a particular view of government’s role which most people on here would disagree with. A similar elision from findings to interventionist policy is found in Layard’s book on the “happiness” literature. As I suggested in an earlier post, we need a review article or Hobart paper looking at all these recent attempts to update the rationale for interventionism/ attack capitalism.

There are many arguments against ‘nudging’ Who decides ‘right’ behaviour? (e.g. Should young people be auto-enrolled into saving or be paying off their mortgage?). Does nudging undermine free institutions to which people submit themselves to nudge their behaviour? etc. However, to give the original authors their due, I think they believe in replacing current regulation with nudges. This may be misguided but is more benign than the actual practice where nudging is yet another form of interference. For example, we will have auto-enrolment into pensions in addition to state pensions (after the state abolished the situation whereby individuals were free to join companies that auto-enrolled them!)

A ‘totalitarian’ society might be defined as one where there’s almost nothing the government doesn’t interfere in somehow. Even so, I’d rather get suggestions from governments than instructions.I don’t like being told not to smoke in my own flat, but I don’t (much) mind being ‘advised’ that smoking may injure my health (or, more aggressively, that ’smoking KILLS’).(I remember my father saying that he didn’t mind giving advice, as long as it was taken. He could never understand why my younger brother and I found that so amusing!)The idea of nudging, I must admit, does rather conjure up the image of Big Brother (or perhaps, as you suggest, Big Nanny).

I see the ‘nudge’ idea in a rather different way. It is an attempt to give an intellectual basis to what governments in liberal democracies already do, which is why politicians of both left and right find it so appealing. Politicians know they cannot interfere directly without risking ridicule or opposition, so they do it indirectly. The real problem is to suggest that Sunstein and Thaler have actually come up with something original and significant when all it is is pragmatic reaction.

Re-inventing the wheel again? This is an old issue studied by social scientists decades ago. Its democracy at work. Duh! Keep an eye on government or loose your freedom. And this article is doing just that. Keep going.

From one perspective, the alternative to ‘nudging’ that Mr Lazanski posits is a mild version of Hobbesian individualist atomism—a race to the bottom—where all are autonomous and solipsistic. Civil society, however, is usually predicated on shared, inter-dependent responses within living tradition and convention—the framework of Burke’s organic society. As the author (and commentators) have so amply demonstrated, the benefit of nudging as compared to the totalitarianism which he fears is that we are free to accept it or not, either to learn from the experiences and wisdom of others or instead to set upon our own paths.

I’ve read the Sunstein/Thaler book and it’s quite an interesting take on some findings from behavioural economics, a rapidly-growing field. However it uses these findings, which are capable of more than one interpretation, to push a particular view of government’s role which most people on here would disagree with. A similar elision from findings to interventionist policy is found in Layard’s book on the “happiness” literature. As I suggested in an earlier post, we need a review article or Hobart paper looking at all these recent attempts to update the rationale for interventionism/ attack capitalism.

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