Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler wrote a well known book called Nudge (not “noodge”), arguing that various social policy should be set up in a way that “nudges” people towards doing things that policymakers thing they should do. For example, if policymakers think more people should invest in 401K plans, employers should be required to make 401K contributions a default. People would have to opt out of their employer’s 401K plan if they didn’t want to make contributions, rather than (as now) having to opt in if they did want it. It does make sense to arrange defaults appropriately, both to decrease the amount of work people have to do (human resources workers as well as employees), and to encourage or discourage certain actions (modifying a thermostat to encourage energy savings, might be another example, or setting printer defaults to minimize paper use).
On the other hand, the way Sunstein and Thaler discuss “nudging” can sound a bit nanny-state-ish. Henry Farrell, a political science professor, and Cosma Shalizi, a professor of statistics, have written an article in the New Scientist (via Crooked Timber) criticizing their views. I agree with their argument, but there is, I think, a problem with the “nudge” theory that I have never seen addressed. Farrell and Shalizi write:
…[T]he key problem with “nudge” style paternalism [is] presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions.
Nor will they ever be able to. “Nudging” is nonverbal. It doesn’t give people the ability to understand their situation better. It doesn’t give people the ability to discuss their situation better. It doesn’t give people the ability to provide the nudgers with extra feedback.
Worse, it lessens people’s ability to deal with the real world. Before the nudge was implemented, people were at least somewhat able to discuss policies, like compensation, on their merits. Afterwards, everything ordinary people suggest will mess up the nudging part of the policy.
Anyone who’s worked in a reasonably large organization will recognize what’s likely to happen next: any suggestion for improvement will be met with objections along the lines of: that’s not what’s really at stake here. But it is what’s really at stake!
It would become impossible to discuss or decide anything except at the topmost levels. There, presumably, are personnel who know how to discuss both aspects of policy and can take account of nudging as well as ordinary practices. But before the nudge, those people delegated a lot of that work to lower-level personnel, who afterward will have slipped out of the loop. And the nudge, in the first place, was implemented by people outside the organization, not those within it. So how this could possibly work is far from clear. What’s more likely is total sclerosis, as nothing changes significantly at a policy level, and things either fall apart or rules are modified surreptitiously and unofficially, day to day.
The idea of the “nudge” seems, on paper, to presuppose that organizations work by choosing (or falling into) a set of rules that define every decision ahead of time, at a very detailed level. If this were literally true, then, we would expect to find a group of architects, highly educated, well aware of everything that needs to be known (practically, theoretically, politically, strategically), who think about policy; and also a group of workers who don’t think about any of this at all. For the latter group of people, presumably, it would be an exaggeration to say that they do what they’re told or that they make decisions by applying rules; they would have to make decisions unconsciously on the basis of rules they’ve somehow internalized but can’t actually articulate. Yet their rules could be changed—by the nudge—on a fairly short timescale. But that isn’t much like what really happens, and isn’t especially plausible.
Most people, most of the time, are a combination of the former and latter groups. “Nudging,” as Farrell and Shalizi show, is undemocratic because it makes it more difficult for them to carry out the former functions. But more than that, it seems to assume an extremely implausible picture of society.
(Now if I could only nudge my three year old to sleep past 6:30 AM now that we’ve moved the clocks back an hour.)