Nudge is the book every leading Cameronian has in his cyclist’s rucksack. Its theory, that we are at heart irrational, procrastinating creatures who need unconscious prods to do (or not do) things that will make us happier and healthier, is the summer fling of the political thinking classes. Fertile New Labour minds are just as keen on the outpourings of Chicago academics Michael Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The infant Welfare Secretary James Purnell insists that he “nudged” pensions policy long before the Tories adopted it. Barack Obama is also a keen nudger on pensions and healthcare.
Pension reform is the “libertarian paternalist” example politicians on both sides of the Atlantic like best. A rogue Homer Simpson inside too many of us ensures that we underplan and underfund our provision for our old age even though we know we should save more. If a bigger “voluntary” contribution is whisked away from our paycheque though, we rarely demand the money back. So without compulsion, we can be edged to be more responsible. What’s not to like?
Cheery upstarts against neoclassical economics and rational choice theory, Thaler and Sunstein believe they have cracked the Third Way that obviates choosing between an intrusive state and being left to our imperfect devices. In their world, “choice architects” would control outcomes, knowing full well what we are likely to do when they give us the “choice”. It is glib trickery, albeit of a very nicely spoken, bland cross-party 21st-century sort.
Like a lot of authors of one-word books, they are startlingly incurious about the downside or risks of their thinking. Professor Thaler tells me he must be on to something because both ends of the political spectrum warm to his work. Well, that might be agreeable for him, but it is a pretty fundamental category error to say that makes it right. You do not make people more rational or responsible by nudging them: you only change their perceptions of the costs and benefits of their choices.
So if the New Conservatives aim to return (as Mr Cameron said recently) to moral judgments about what is good and bad for society, they should tell us how his vision of a good society can be achieved, not just seek to bring it about by stealth and coded options.
Nudges should be deployed sparingly. Too many of them will leave us feeling manipulated and second-guessed, in the same way that I now want to say “nudge off” when Amazon presumes to tell me what books it thinks I will like.
Of course, I could just stop carping, get with the programme and contribute some sequels. A new philosophy for the Blairmeronian centre ground, Sludge. For confused Liberal Democrats, Fudge. And for David Davis and his renegade Tory libertarians, Grudge. I really think I’m on to something.
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