18 November 2015

More on (Not) Nudging

I've previously posted on the theory of "nudging" advocated by one of President Obama's favorite law professors, Cass Sunstein. (Read them here and here.) To repeat myself again another time:
Nudge is the idea that careful rearrangement of individual incentives by a multitude of government (dis)incentives can get the market to do what social planners believe is best. Since individual and ultimately societal desires are generated by a multitude of material causes,... manipulation of those causes by a series of well-designed "pinpricks" will cause us to want what is "better" for us than whatever we would otherwise desire. Neo-classical economics championed by the Chicago School of Economics meets state planning.
I've also posted some positive remarks about the work of Christopher McCrudden here and made use of his work on the use of "dignity" as a foundation for human rights in my article Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (which you can download by going here).

I want to use this opportunity to combine nudging and dignity by directing folks to The Dark Side of Nudging: The Ethics, Political Economy, and Law of Libertarian Paternalism by McCrudden and Jeff King that you can download here. A representative quote:
In this article, we explain why this philosophy is seriously flawed. We make four arguments. The first is that there is no justification for a presumption in favor of nudging as a default regulatory strategy, as Sunstein asserts. It is ordinarily less effective than mandates; such mandates rarely offend personal autonomy; and the central reliance on cognitive failures in the nudging program is more likely to offend human dignity than the mandates it seeks to replace. Secondly, we argue that nudging as a regulatory strategy fits both overtly and covertly, often insidiously, into a more general libertarian program of political economy. ... Thirdly, while we are on the whole more concerned to reject the libertarian than the paternalistic elements of this philosophy, Sunstein’s work, both in Why Nudge?, and earlier, fails to appreciate how nudging may be manipulative if not designed with more care than he acknowledges. Lastly, because of these characteristics, nudging might even be subject to legal challenges that would give us the worst of all possible regulatory worlds: a weak regulatory intervention that is liable to be challenged in the courts by well-resourced interest groups. In such a scenario, and contrary to the "common sense" ethos contended for in Why Nudge?, nudges might not even clear the excessively low bar of doing something rather than nothing.
I don't find each of the authors' assertions of equal plausibility but taken together they certainly amount to fundamental attack on the legitimacy and utility of nudging as a means of social control. 

In particular I find "libertarian paternalism" (Sunstein's words) very problematic. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here, for example), I find libertarianism rather too thin a gruel on which to nourish the body politic. Doctrinaire libertarianism, however, represents only a minor (albeit noisy) sliver of American political thought. Yet combining the vacuity of libertarianism with "Progressive" social policy frightens me. Oil and water do not ordinarily mix but given the right temperature and pressure they can be combined. And that's at least part of the warning sounded by McCrudden and King.

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