Really Want to Nudge?


By: Guest Authors

By Jeffrey Schmidt

In the 1960s, it might have been a dance craze. In 2008, it may be the coming word in politics – on the Left. And for Barack Obama.

The word is “nudge,” as in nudging Americans to do the right things. The right things according to Barack Obama and liberals. But nudging may just hold out interesting – if not, tantalizing – possibilities for conservatives as well.

George Will wrote about the Nudge in his Newsweek commentary last week. In paragraph two he explains:

“Barack Obama is a ‘choice architect’ aiming to implement ‘libertarian paternalism.’ He might not know that he is; he might embrace the practice without understanding the theory. It is adumbrated in the new book “Nudge” by two occasional and informal advisers to Obama, both of whom are former colleagues of his at the University of Chicago, Richard H. Thaler of the Graduate School of Business, and Cass R. Sunstein of the Law School.”

Will goes on to explain the theory behind the Nudge:

“Thaler and Sunstein correctly assume that people are busy, their lives are increasingly complicated and they have neither time nor inclination nor, often, the ability to think through even all important choices, from health care plans to retirement options. Therefore the framing of choices matters, particularly using the enormous power of the default option—the option that goes into effect if the chooser chooses not to make a choice.”

Of course, that explanation begs the question: “Who will frame the choices?” Let’s take a wild guess. Politicians, Congress, state legislatures, bureaucrats and judges? And it begets the perennial question: “By what right does government have the prerogative to make decisions – or frame choices – for Americans?” And one may add, specifically, the right to determine what foods we eat, the retirements we have –or don’t have – and the body parts we donate to medicine or science?

And what about this notion of “libertarian paternalism?” Seems a bit oxymoronic, doesn’t it? Here are standard definitions of “libertarian:”

1. Advocate of individual responsibility. Somebody who believes in the doctrine of free will. (emphasis added)

2. Advocate of individual freedom. Somebody who believes in the principle that people should have complete freedom of thought and action. (emphasis added)

Now, let’s take a look at a standard definition of “paternalism:”

“Telling people what is best. A style of government or management, or an approach to personal relationships, in which the desire to help, advise, and protect may neglect individual choice and personal responsibility.” (emphasis added)

It appears that these are two contradictory concepts brought together in a shotgun marriage.

Will closes his article with a mildly laudatory take on the Nudge:

“Thaler and Sunstein stress that if ‘incentives and nudges replace requirements and bans, government will be both smaller and more modest.’ So nudges have the additional virtue of annoying those busybody, nanny-state liberals who, as the saying goes, do not care what people do as long as it is compulsory.”

The Founders never intended government to interfere with, or decide for, Americans in the choices that they make in their daily lives. So-called libertarian paternalism boils down to the few – an elite – making choices for the many. They make the choices because they create – or limit – the range of options for the chooser. No action results in a “default,” which is just another way of compelling choice – call it “soft compulsion.”

Now let’s consider the true nature of the left.

Nanny-state liberalism has a creeping, subversive quality to it. The Nudge may initially be attractive to the left precisely because it narrows people’s choices within an acceptable range. And it puts on a nice face. But what if the Nudge fails to deliver the desired results? What if putting apples at eye level and Twinkies on a lower shelf in a school cafeteria line, to borrow from Will, doesn’t result in more apples being eaten?

Might the left accept that more Twinkies are eaten? Or might liberal politicians and idle-minded bureaucrats decide to narrow the choices further, eliminating Twinkies altogether in favor of granola bars? Or might they substitute prunes for Twinkies, reasoning that apples are going to be more appealing to consumers? And if that still doesn’t result in more apples eaten, then what?

The left is very expert at making plastic of words and concepts. If they find that the Nudge doesn’t nudge Americans along in a direction they deem desirable, or quickly enough, then the concept may well be cleverly manipulated and window-dressed to better serve a more rigorous nanny-state agenda.

In the marketplace, where free exchange is the rule, frameworks are provided all the time. You want to buy a car. You have a range of choices. If you don’t like the choices, you can opt out. There is no default mechanism, in that if you pass on three car makes you are shunted off to a Ford Escort. You have the prerogative of looking for alternative means of transportation. You can buy a motorcycle, a bicycle, a skateboard or just walk. Resourcefulness, initiative and your estimation of your best interests guide your eventual choice.

In an imperfect world – a free word – do people make bad choices? Yes, of course, everyone does, to one degree or another, quite regularly. But many of those bad choices can be and are fixed, regularly. Reality and the school of hard knocks are excellent teachers. Bad choices lead to knowledge, the knowledge to make better choices next time. Real freedom means real choice; it means the right to chart your own course. It means accepting the consequences of your choices.

And don’t governments make bad choices, and when they do, what are the consequences to the lives of many millions of people?

Most would grant that the world is a busier place. Between jobs and family, there seems to be less time to even catch a breath. But is it wise to “default” to politicians and unelected bureaucrats – or to appointed judges – to frame choices? Do Americans really want to turn over so much of their lives to those – at least, many of those – who have a statist bent to begin with? To those who will use frameworks to increasingly narrow choices and narrow freedom?

Here again, busy Americans need to rely on their very American resourcefulness. Need help in “thinking through… important choices, from health care options to retirement options?” Seek the assistance of family, friends, neighbors and trusted associates. Seek the help of professionals whose services you can contract to help guide your choices. In the private sector, voluntarily, there is recourse.

Lastly, if liberals wish to Nudge, no need for conservatives to be left out. But the conservative version of the Nudge would be markedly different. It would consist of passing laws on the local, state and national levels that makes it mandatory to give taxpayers and voters essential information about government policies and programs.

For instance, post signs – large ones – at gas stations across the country that disclose how much tax is part of the price of a gallon of gas. Or that government, in cahoots with radical environmentalists, is prohibiting energy companies from developing the abundant oil, gas, and coal reserves off the nation’s shores and on its soil. Or billboards at the city limits of Detroit, Cleveland and Newark that state that after spending tens of billions of tax dollars on inner city schools, children haven’t been educated. Or public service announcements on radio and television informing people that Social Security is something of a ponzi scheme and headed for collapse. Or… fill in the blank.

Doing something along those lines, might a conservative Nudge just sweep the nation?

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