Photo by Agni B

Template for technocrats

Nudge taught a generation of experts how to manipulate the public, free from scrutiny

Artillery Row Books

 Nudge has a claim to being one of the most influential books of the last quarter century. When it was published in 2008, it caused a sensation as a new bestseller. It influenced a generation of civil servants, politicians, social scientists and pressure groups. Nudge provided an accessible and persuasive argument about the power of incentivising the public through so-called nudges. Nudges are planned limitation (and promotion) of options in ways that direct individuals to make choices that designers consider most beneficial, based on a familiarity with choice theory and behavioural economics. The authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (both social scientists) called this “choice architecture”. 

This new edition is a complete revision. It includes thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic, the impact of technology and responses to criticisms of the first edition. The early chapters provide a crib of fascinating findings of choice theory: Most people rate themselves as above average. People are very susceptible to narrative framing about topics they do not know well. People tend to make estimates strongly influenced by their mood and dependent on their personal situation. Keeping is more important than getting and that influences subjective pricing; loss aversion creates inertia. Perceived popularity leads to actual popularity. Decision-makers can decide poorly because they have little experience or the feedback mechanisms are unclear or delayed. (Consider long-term investment choices or lifestyle decisions.)

Nudge: The Final Edition by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Products and systems can be made more effective and beneficial using an understanding of status-quo bias, knowledge limitations and absence of feedback. When designing everything from aeroplane controls to train-ticket readers, smart design helps users avoid errors. Safety features sometimes engage automatically by default unless the user chooses to override them. Classic nudges include optimal default options in pension plans or healthcare contracts. The asymmetry of options (making one easy and cheap, with the alternative being the reverse) is key to some business models. Opt-outs (rather than opt-ins) can nudge employees to save more for retirement and people to donate their organs. 

Nudging is an opportunity for academics to test theories, free of accountability

Thaler and Sunstein come across as positive and enthusiastic, able to mock themselves. The book has the air of a pop-science presentation of the benefits of behavioural economics in action. It is easy to see why this book has been compared to the Freakonomics series, with their shared combination of data, lateral thinking and humour. However, there are worrying ethical absences. 

The authors do not question the assumption that since government and civil servants have the power to micromanage members of the public, they have the competence or right to do so. Nudging is an opportunity for academics to test theories, free of accountability and even free of scrutiny. Health England’s action on sugar taxes, food advertising and vaping classification is a classic case of a nudge unit with too many bright ideas and good intentions.

What about manipulative nudging? “[…] we don’t think that the risk of our book falling into the hands of bullies and crooks should be at the top of anyone’s list of things to worry about. Maybe fret more about climate?” Which is exactly the same whataboutism that prompts cabinet ministers (who have lined up lucrative government contracts for relatives) to tell reporters to worry about the “crisis” rather than their own corruption.

The authors are at times naïve. They claim that movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter were expressions of popular sentiment when they were “astroturfed” (that is, when groups misrepresent a minority interest as a cause with widespread support in order to extract concessions). In these cases, it seems the authors have been successfully nudged by operators cannier than they.

The most pernicious result of consensus of the elite, a narrow range of acceptable discourse, and nudge policies, is to be found in eco-activism. Even the framing of “climate crisis” presumes that we agree a) there is a climate crisis, b) it can be partially remedied through action, c) what those actions should be and d) that individuals do not need to assent to these. Green nudges are used to make life difficult, to add costs and to reduce options – often all against the best interests of the population and in service of the elite. 

In the 1940s, political theorist James Burnham set out the idea of a managerial elite. He stated that an elite class of bureaucrats and managers would create a technocracy by eroding the authority of the Church, community and family, undercutting capitalist entrepreneurs through regulation and bypassing electoral democracy. This seems to have come to pass. Nudge appeals to the technocrat’s innate sense of entitlement and expertise; it shields him from scrutiny because he does not have to publicly explain (or justify) policies. 

The book displays all the worst traits of technocrats and academics

The self-interested incentives that motivate experts be they campaigners or scientists make the designers of nudges unsuitable to wield unaccountable power. The absence from Nudge of any discussion of the symbiotic relationship between government, academia, pressure groups and the mainstream media is baffling. Surely, the biggest nudge in history is the campaign of fear regarding COVID-19 that these sectors waged upon the population, partly done by seeding radical restrictive ideas in press pieces, followed by polls designed to shape public opinion, not reflect it. This is how nudges are normalised and rationalised. 

Amusing, enlightening and approachable as Nudge is, it displays all the worst traits of technocrats and academics: elitist self-regard, absence of self-scrutiny, disregard of the material/political motivations of advisers, ethical blind spots of continental size. For that very reason, the hugely influential Nudge is essential reading. It shows you the template of technocracy.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover