Matthew blogged yesterday about the (inevitable?) backlash against the ubiquity of nudging. He suggests that nudging is most likely to be useful at a local level and concludes that “Changing behaviour is hard. Nudging is a useful technique but it doesn’t abolish the classic dilemmas of policy making.”
I think this is right (and not just because he’s my boss).
There are three key features of the discussion around nudging that are particularly interesting.
The first is the debate about what sort of issues nudging best addresses and at what level.
The second is the persistent uncertainty about whether this is an idea that sits more happily on the big-state left or the small-state right (libertarian paternalism may not be an oxymoron but it does seem to encourage this debate).
In part this debate comes out of the fact that nudging appears to be non-ideological, simply a means of helping us to more easily achieve rational ends.
This leads to the third element: it is often suggested that nudging is a way of “fixing” adaptive discrepancies between the way we evolved and the way the world now is. So for instance we evolved to crave sugar in an environment in which sugar was scarce and have not adjusted to a context in which it is plentiful. Hence obesity and hence our need for nudging.
This again, underlines the non-ideological nature of nudging – it simply helps us to become better suited to the environment we live in and who could take issue with that?
But of course nudging is not free of values it simply defers them. If I am nudged to save money for the future and improve my health, it is only because we have as a society decided that health and prosperity are values that we want to pursue. There’s nothing rational about the choice of ultimate ends and Libertarian paternalism has nothing to say about it.
And neither does evolution. Natural selection does not have a goal; it has no moral or prescriptive content. It is at its most essential level simply an account of which biological adaptations have historically proved best suited to their environments. As such it tells us nothing about how we should live now.
That is an essential task of political debate and neither behavioural economics nor evolutionary psychology can do it for us.