November 14, 2011

A Nudge Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Bat

Attention conservation notice: The only thing more pathetic than a writer whining about editorial decisions is a writer whining about negative reviews and being misunderstood. Also, nothing which is both so geeky and so careless as to begin with a mis-quotation of Monty Python can end well.

So, Henry Farrell and I have an opinion piece in New Scientist about how the "libertarian paternalism" of Sunstein and Thaler, and policy-making by "nudging" more generally, are Bad Ideas. The reason we think they are Bad Ideas is that they try to do good by stealth, and thereby break the feedback mechanisms which (1) keep policy-makers accountable to those over whom they exercise power, and (2) allow policy-makers to tell whether what they are doing is working, and revise their initial policies and plans in light of experience. (And by this we very much include the experience of getting something you think you want, and discovering that it is no good for you at all.) Granting the best will in the world on the part of the nudgers, it is putting a very high value on one's own conjectures to deliberately break the most important mechanism for improving them.

In short, I thought we were making a Popperian point about how democracy is best understood not in terms of "the people's will" or the like, but accountability and rational policy revision. I also thought we were making a Popperian point about the dangers of top-down social engineering. Indeed, I was strongly tempted to quote chapter (10 and 9, respectively) and verse from The Open Society and Its Enemies for both points, but the constraints of space, and of not sounding like complete pedants, prevailed. It would, I thought, be tolerably plain what our objections were.

I had not counted on two things. First, we were, evidently, nowhere near as clear in our writing as I thought. (I take full blame for this.) Second, whoever is in charge of such matters at New Scientist gave us the headline "Nudge Policies Are Another Name for Coercion". This was so far from being our objection that we rather deliberately did not use the word "coercion" (or "coerce", etc.) at all. Everyone who is not a complete anarchist, after all, believes that some coercion is legitimate, and so the question is what sorts, to what ends, under what conditions, etc. And I regard the usual right-libertarian attempt to claim that deploying coercion only and always in favor of the interests of the rich is somehow minimizing it to be simply confused, when it is not deliberate sophistry. (As Sunstein put it in a good book with Stephen Holmes, "liberty depends on taxes".) It is, I suppose, a testimony to the hegemony of right-wing ideas that when we said something which amounted to a paraphrase and dilution of the third thesis on Feuerbach, the headline writer heard Milton Friedman, or perhaps Ayn Rand. This did not help get our point across, and the only two responses I've seen which obviously got it are two comments at Crooked Timber, by Scott Martens and by Salient.

I would also like to add that I had no idea New Scientist would syndicate our piece to Slate. The latter changed the headline to the less actively-misleading "Nudge No More", but added a gratuitous cheesecake photo, and provoked some ribbing on the part of friends who recalled my stated views about the magazine. Those views, for the record, remain unchanged; if anything, I am disturbed that Slate thought we fit either their editorial line or their tone. I console myself with thoughts of Dahlia Lithwick and Jordan Ellenberg.


  1. None of the reactions persuade me that we're wrong in our basic points. (Though Scott's remarks are well-taken.)
  2. Many of the reactions persuade me that this kind of writing is much harder than I thought.
  3. I wish to apologize to the journalists of the world, for having entertained uncharitable thoughts when they tried to dissociate themselves from their headlines.

Disclaimer: Henry is not responsible for this post.

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Posted at November 14, 2011 23:30 | permanent link

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