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ship of fools

Are we more rational than those who wish to “nudge” us? That is the premise of this interesting essay by Steven Poole. He discusses the “cognitive biases” revealed by behavioral economic research, but questions the context within which certain behaviors are deemed irrational. In a broader sense, he demonstrates that the human quirks regarded by behavioral researchers as “biased” can usually be construed as rational.

Advocates of nudging individuals toward certain choices must first determine the best option (in their own estimation, of course) and how to present the information to subjects. In other words, they believe in their ability to practice the art of manipulation. Some of these would-be nudgers, such as Cass Sunstein, deign to call this practice “libertarian paternalism.” Sorry, no… it’s just paternalism. Widespread use of nudging is really an elitist vision, and one which itself attempts to nudge individuals into a dangerous acceptance of social control, in small and potentially large form. From Poole, with reference to presumed human irrationality:

This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy.

The “manipulative arts” are nothing new, of course, and I am willing to admit that they can be used with good intent. After all, any law represents an attempt to manage behavior, and successful laws tend to be those over which there is an overwhelming consensus. However, I believe that “nudging” by government in an attempt to manage otherwise voluntary behavior is a red flag. It probably signals that the government is involved in an activity in which it has no appropriate role.