Professor Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge, is one of the most sought-after people in the world at the moment. His behavioural economics (BE) snowball is now well down the hill, has taken out some skiiers and is about to roll along the valley, chasing people around like that giant bubble thing from The Prisoner. His co-author and fellow University of Chicago professor, Cass Sunstein, is now closely advising the Obama administration on how to frame BE-savvy regulations. Some people claim the techniques developed through BE are helping governments and big corporations manipulate us without our knowing. Should we be scared?
Thaler was reassuring on all this in his casual 5 minute chat on Radio 4 at the weekend: Broadcasting House – Thaler on BE. Interestingly, he recognised the potential for manipulation and expressly disavowed BE as a method governments should use – or at least use secretly. Nudge was about getting the right outcomes, “as defined by the people who are being nudged.” This is a crucial point and, I think, one missed in much of the discussion of Nudge in the British political arena.
Thaler puts transparency in government above all. It is essential to ‘nudge’ measures working that people feel they are – and actually are – making a free choice. But when Thaler says the right outcomes are defined by the people being nudged, it does beg a question about how democracy works. Can a government, on the basis of its democratic mandate, then decide that the outcomes it wants are outcomes that the people want, as expressed through the ballot box? This would seem to go against Thaler’s aversion to government nudging and can’t be what he means. Yet how do the outcomes get defined, if not through democracy and some kind of majoritarian approach?
An example Thaler gives of a nudge he is happy with is one I have recently been nudged into doing myself – carrying an organ donation card. The reason I got one was I updated my driving licence. The government set up a system with the DVLA whereby every time someone renews their driving licence, they are asked if they want to carry an organ donor card. It’s called “prompted choice”. All I can say is, it worked on me. It was one of those things I always meant to do and never got around to doing – classic Nudge territory. And I’m not alone, it has apparently been a big success. Moves are afoot, says Thaler, to extend this to interactions with the NHS, so that people may be asked then too if they want a donor card. No harm and it’s a free choice – you can see why Thaler’s happy about it.
But what I don’t get is the difference between this and other forms of government nudging. Most people would agree that having more organs available for donation is a good thing. But how many people need to agree before it becomes a legitimate thing for the government to nudge people towards. 90 per cent? 80, 70, 60? 51? You could say that any government, by the very fact of its being in government, is obliged to have goals that involve impacting upon our behaviour: so doesn’t the government always have the right to set the Nudge outcomes? Isn’t this just what governments have always assumed was their purpose?
- What is the government’s ‘nudge unit’? | Julian Glover (guardian.co.uk)
- Drivers get organ donor ‘nudge’ (bbc.co.uk)