Private versus Public Nudging

Here is Mark Pennington in his second post as our guest-blogger this week.

“Private versus Public Nudging” by Mark Pennington

Last week I attended a speech by Richard Thaler, of ‘Nudge’ fame.

Professor Thaler is an engaging speaker. His assertion that ‘libertarian paternalism’ is merely an extension of methods widely adopted in daily life is a beguilingly simple, yet ultimately dangerous one. According to Thaler since good mothers constantly attempt to ‘nudge’ their offspring in the ‘right direction’ then we should not worry about governmental nudging. Whether it is ‘fat taxes’ to discourage unhealthy eating induced by ‘weakness of will’ or compulsory enrolment in savings schemes to induce less ‘short-sighted’ and more thrifty conduct, people should learn to love a government that coaxes them towards what they themselves would recognise is in their own best interests.

The classical liberal tradition is not, and never has been suspicious of the idea that individual behaviour can or should be ‘steered’ and that conscious attempts might be made to ‘shape’ our character. Outside of the nudges provided by family life, people may join voluntary associations which exert different forms of social and peer-group pressure to steer them in one direction or another. Religious associations have long discouraged alcohol consumption and have favoured abstinence in various aspects of life. Many of the mutual aid associations that thrived during the heyday of liberalism in the nineteenth century modelled themselves explicitly as ‘character-building’ associations that encouraged thrift and an independent spirit. And, in the contemporary world the various reward schemes offered by health insurers to encourage personal fitness, devices such as minimum term gym memberships, and penalty charges for early withdrawal of investment funds are all examples of privately generated strategies to cope with ‘weakness of will’ and ‘short-sightedness’.

Listening to Professor Thaler I was reminded of the claim made by many socialists in the past – Lenin being perhaps the most prominent – that since private firms routinely engage in ‘planning’ there should not be any concern about the state ‘planning’ on  a society wide scale. Yet, as Hayek noted on numerous occasions, to recognise that ‘planning ‘ is an essential element of a progressive society tells us nothing about ‘who should plan’  and ‘for whom’. Likewise, to acknowledge that ‘nudging’ strategies may be an aid  to effective decision-making in the context of limited rationality, tells us nothing about ‘who should nudge’ and ‘for whom’.  It does not follow that since some nudging may be desirable that we should automatically favour governmental nudging. On the contrary, there are several reasons to suggest that ‘private’ nudging should in fact be preferred to the statist variety.

First, in a context of limited knowledge and limited rationality, we do not know which nudges are most appropriate and for which particular types of behaviour. It makes sense, therefore, to rely on a decentralised process which reduces the possibility of erroneous nudges being imposed on a society wide basis – and this requires that no particular nudge is imposed by law. In the same way that planning by private firms is preferable to planning by government’s precisely because it is competitive, decentralised and voluntary planning, so competitive nudging in markets and civil society is to be preferred to ‘central nudging’ by the state.   That the consequences of misplaced nudging by government agencies tend to be far more pronounced than equivalent failures in the private sphere is all too evident in what has happened to savings ratios across much of the developed world. It is odd, to put it mildly, that governments which have ‘nudged’ people towards immediate consumption through a combination of inflationary monetary policies and taxes on capital should now be trusted to encourage more frugal habits.

Second, while behavioural scientists in general (such as Thaler) may have better knowledge about the biases that limit people’s choices, the specific knowledge needed to cope with particular instances of irrational conduct and detailed knowledge of the reasons why people make the choices that they do is more likely to reside with those who actually make these choices. Classical liberalism does not claim that people are fully rational but that people are more likely to be aware of their own character traits than distant experts, however technically skilled in behavioural economics. Someone who is, for example, prone to ‘weakness of will’ may find it advantageous to join an organisation such as the army, or an amateur boxing club – a life choice that may be entirely inappropriate for an individual who already exhibits the necessary strength of character.  Centrally imposed mandates and taxes are not, however, best placed to identify those choices which reflect preferences free from behavioural bias from those that are not, and are likely to place obstacles in the way of those who have genuinely unbiased preferences to act in ways of which officially sanctioned nudgers disapprove. It might of course be suggested that people may lack the knowledge or determination to avail themselves of private nudging strategies in shaping their own lives. Yet, if people are as lacking in motivation to address their character problems as this analysis implies then there would seem no more reason to believe that they would vote for a government proposing to subject them to ‘libertarian paternalism’.

Finally, people who are to be charged with nudging in the public sector may themselves be subject to the same or perhaps different behavioural biases to those of the population at large. That Professor Thaler seems unwilling to consider the dangers of behavioural bias in the institutions of government and those of democratic politics might be considered to indicate a cognitive blind spot on his behalf. That such biases do exist is attested to by the work of the political scientist Diana Mutz [1] (who is by no means of a classical liberal/libertarian bent). Through some pretty comprehensive empirical work she has demonstrated that the people who become actively involved in politics are less likely than the population at large to exhibit tolerance and a willingness to change their mind over time. They are the people who are least likely to come in to contact with those who exhibit different values to their own, let alone actually having sufficient experience of such people that they might try to understand the reasoning behind the values that they hold. In an echo of Hayek’s analysis of ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’  under ‘democratic socialism’,  there appears to be a selection mechanism operative in politics which favours the ascent of the most doctrinaire and intolerant actors.  If libertarian paternalism is not to collapse into its better know cousin – authoritarianism – then there can surely be no better reason to favour private to public nudging.


[1] Mutz, D. (2006) Hearing the Other Side: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6 thoughts on “Private versus Public Nudging

  1. If “the medium is the message”, on the private level, money will be the likely source of nudging and we know as Plato voiced:

    ‘And I think that you too would call it propaganda when people are enticed into a change of opinion by promises of pleasure, or terrified into it by threats?’
    ‘Yes, propaganda and deceit always go together.’ (Plato, Republic)

    It is also likely with “pure profit” as the dominant focus there will be lots of propaganda and deceit. So how do we reduce it? Already we acknowledge human cognitive limitations.

  2. re private nudging – didnt the building societies and banks in the 80s and 90s nudge my parents and others towards mortgages where the capital was paid off by a PEP or some other type of investment vehicle – many of which turned out to be inadequate? My point being that asking such organisations to do the nudging might presume they have the public’s benefit as their priority?

  3. I’m concerned you created a straw man or a red herring or both. What you describe as nudges are not nudges in the Thaler sense. Did he actually give examples of taxes as nudges? Nudges are changes in the default. Nudges by that definition don’t compare to Leninism — in my opinion.

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