Intolerable Nudging
By Tibor Machan - August 30, 2011

Champions of government intervention in our lives make every effort, especially in a country with a tradition of libertarian political rhetoric, to disguise that they are embarking upon tyranny. Yes, much of it may be of the petty kind, such as thousands of government regulations produced by various congressional committees. But as politicians and bureaucrats always reach beyond their authority to gain power over us, these petty tyrannies, these minor intrusions that the nudging amounts to, begin to get out of hand. In time the population just will not stand for it. We get political movements like the Tea Party arising to defend our liberties even from these allegedly minor nudgings.

It was the influential Professor Cass Sunstein – now President Obama's regulation czar – and his buddy Richard H. Thaler who wrote the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2004) in which they developed the idea that what governments need to do is not deploy brute force and its threat to make citizens comply with their agendas, but make use of small bits of coercion, to nudge them, so they do not find the process objectionable. They make use of the examples of people encouraging their friends, for example, to conform to various rules, as when they place a bunch of footwear by the door so that those coming to their party will take off their shoes before they come into the rest of the house or flat. They will not even notice that they have been forced into compliance with the house rules! They won't complain or protest that they have been imposed upon.

Now the analogy here is a poor one because such encouragements usually occur in areas over which the guests don't have rightful control, quite the contrary. Nudging is quite acceptable when it occurs within the nudger's realm, his or her home or garden or yard or office. All of that is quite different from when governments nudge us, that is to say, push people around.

In public policy an example of nudging would be to provide special tax exemptions to married couples or to those who choose a certain profession or those who purchase homes – e.g., the famous mortgage interest deduction that has been partly responsible for the housing meltdown by having encouraged people to buy homes, never mind whether they can actually afford the mortgage.

All these manipulative techniques may seem harmless to those who have no objection to controlling other people for purposes they believe are worthwhile. But if one thinks about it, nudging is paternalistic – indeed, Thaler has called it "libertarian paternalism," never mind that the very idea is an oxymoron, like pacifist military ethics.

Most folks will not do much to resist governmental nudging, mainly because it is too much trouble, too time consuming and expensive, the same way most of us will not sue people who bump into us on a sidewalk or step on our toes on a tram. Yet, if this becomes routine – if one runs across somebody who makes a habit of bumping people or of stepping on their toes or spilling coffee on them, etc. (all minor intrusions on their own but capable of graduating to serious encroachments once regularly repeated) – it stops being simply a nuisance. Indeed, if a society starts being overrun with nudging it is likely to foster a good deal of acrimony among its citizens.

It is arguable that movements like the Tea Party are in part reactions to incessant nudging. Such public policy methods may well serve to wake up the citizenry to how public officials have become anything but public servants but have grown into power hungry bureaucrats.

As with many aspects of human relations, it is one thing to accept minor intrusions if they are accidental, occasional and unintended; it is quite another when they become elements of deliberate public policy. Of course, power hungry people would like us all to accept all the nudging that drives us to do their bidding. And because most of us tend to be civilized and tolerate people, we do not speak up about these matters regularly. However, if they get out of hand, look out.