In recent weeks and months, we have been told that a publication, Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness by Thaler and Sunstein, is required reading for Tory MPs. Apparently, Cameron and Osborne have found it a source of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, I too have now read it. It is another in a long series of books, including The Wisdom of Crowds and The Tipping Point, which present often banal observations as profound truths. They gain some coverage and enter our everyday lexicon for a period of months or weeks. But the absence of substance and of real insight ensures a brief lifespan.
So what is interesting about Nudge? The book argues for what the authors call ‘liberal paternalism’. At first sight, these are two words that should sit uneasily together. They argue for the freedom to choose moderated by a paternalistic concern with our best interests. So, we can choose, but the way those choices are framed and presented can be legitimately played with in order to ‘nudge’ us towards those choices that are in our best interest. This sounds rather patronising, except that they qualify it by saying that what consitutes our interests are those choices we would choose if we paid full attention, had perfect information and could exercise total self-control.
They then divide the world into homo economicus and homo sapiens. The one is rational, the other is prone to make errors. I know I am not rational in that sometimes my attention wanders, I have less than perfect information and my self-control needs a little work. So they judge my decisions to be prone to errors. I cannot help thinking that they are looking down their nose at me as they say these things. And who are these rational superbeings? Does anyone have access to perfect information?
However, there is something in what they say. It is true that the way choices are presented influences the choices we make. But how does this observation inform policy-making? What can messers Cameron and Osborne really learn from this book? Should public servants be ‘nudging’ us rather than delivering, say, health services or pensions. Or should we be nudged by supermarkets to buy more healthy options. I am not clear what the consequences are. Do we need to rearrange the shelves for every consumer who walks by, because their choices and interests would be different even if perfectly informed etc.?
A hint – no matter where this book is placed on the shelves, walk on by.
Further discussion of these books can be read at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/05/conservatives.ukcrime