Thursday, July 17, 2008

Should the government nudge people to improve their decisions?

What is a nudge? In their book, “Nudge”, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein define a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing economic incentives” (p 6).

Thaler and Sunstein claim that nudges are consistent with libertarianism because they don’t involve coercion but they readily acknowledge that nudges are paternalistic. They advocate "libertarian paternalism".

An example might help to clarify what a nudge involves. If the government were to invest a certain proportion of your income in a superannuation fund on your behalf this would amount to a nudge (rather than a push or a shove) if you were allowed to withdraw the funds at any time to use as you wished. There is evidence that as a result of a tendency for people to avoid choices (or to choose the default options) such an arrangement would result in much more investment in superannuation than one that relied solely on tax incentives. It would do this without the interference in personal choice that is involved in compulsory superannuation, such as exists in Australia.

After reading “Nudge” I decided to read some reviews by other people to help clarify my own views. The basic idea that people’s behaviour can be influenced by so called “choice architects” seems to be widely accepted by reviewers. This does not surprise me because there is no real conflict between the conventional view of economists (as argued, for example by Tim Harford in “The Logic of Life”) that people respond to incentives and the view of psychologists and behavioral economists (for example, Dan Ariely) that people are “predictably irrational”. For elaboration, see here.

Some reviewers taking what seems to me to be a predictably irrational approach, attack Thaler and Sunstein for rejecting coercion. For example, in the New York Review of Books. John Cassidy argues: “Once you concentrate on the reality that people often make poor choices, and that their actions can harm others as well as themselves, the obvious thing to do is restrict their set of choices and prohibit destructive behavior” (see here). The fallacy in this argument was aptly described by Harold Demsetz as “the grass is always greener” fallacy (‘Information and efficiency: another viewpoint’, Journal of Law and Economics, 1969) . Cassidy seems to be claiming that if outcomes are imperfect when choices are not restricted they must necessarily be better when choices are restricted. Social experiments with prohibition of alcohol early last century and Keynesianism from World War II until the stagflation of the1970s should have taught everyone that government interventions do not always result in better outcomes.

Some other reviewers attack Thaler and Sunstein for being paternalistic. For example David Gordon of the Mises Institute argues: “Those who wish to preserve liberty must take people's actions as they find them, not substitute for them "better" or more "rational" actions, based on an assessment of what people "really" want.” He suggests that: “Those who find convincing the explanations of bad choices put forward by Thaler and Sunstein are free to make arrangements with others that will alleviate these problems. If you think that sudden impulses when confronted with tempting food will lead you to fall off your diet, you may contract with a friend to forfeit money should you fail to meet certain weight requirements. But, in a free society, doing so is up to you; the state may not nudge you into this sort of contract” (see here).

Although I have a great deal of sympathy for Gordon’s line of argument, I don’t think it settles the question. Even though I vote to preserve my liberty - and am prepared to accept the consequences - that doesn’t stop the majority of people from voting in favour of government action to nudge their decisions (and mine) in particular directions. I will consider the implications of this in my next post.


Troy Camplin said...

"Voting for the right is doing nothing for it." -- Henry David Thoreau

BTW, you should come by the Emerson Institute for Freedom and Culture website:

Consider submitting something.

Winton Bates said...

I think Thoreau exaggerated, but I accept your point.

Best wishes for the Emerson Institute.