When Nudge becomes prod

There has been some debate about Nudge and how it can been used, especially in terms of organ donation. For those not aware Nudge is a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein based on the premise that we aren't very good about making decisions about our long term future. The idea is that the decision architecture is set up so that that by default we end up with the decision that experts have decided is best for us and that we have to make a positive action to change it. But, furthermore, taking that action should be low cost and easy.

I haven't read the book but I know a man who has and he has excellent libertarian bona fides and he seems quite relaxed about the concept because, as he says:
But Thaler and Sunstein never view the public as unwitting dupes of corporations and peer-pressure. Rather, they view people as fundamentally sensible, if not always well informed. As such, they set significant limits on the kind of nudging that can be considered tolerable in a liberal society.
When they talk about making 'good' choices easier, they actually mean it. Unlike the UK Faculty of Health and the last British government, they do not mean banning 'bad' choices.
I have also heard Richard Thaler speak on the subject and, often to the dismay of the interviewer, he seemed quite relaxed about people opting out of whatever Nudge scenario had been set up.

The classic example is retirement savings. Most people would agree that saving for retirement is not only in our own best interst but also that of wider society who pick up the tab if we don't. So using Nudge principles we are automatically enrolled in a plan and have to opt out if we don't want to save. There may be very good reasons why people want to opt out, investing in education to get higher future rewards, for example, but whatever they are it is not the business of the rest of us, and especially politicians, to chastise and berate those who do opt out.

The subject that is causing a stir at the moment is organ donation and it is something that Longrider has been debating for some time. The idea is that we should have some form of presumed consent that our organs can be used when we die unless we opt out. The way many see it working is that we automatically consent when we apply for a driving licence and have to make an decision to opt out by, for example, ticking a box. Why just drivers I don't know, maybe it should be automatic when reaching the age of 18 and you receive a letter that you have to return or go to a web site to opt out I don't know, but the mechanics aren't the point, its the whole concept of Nudge and organ donations that is the issue.

As long as the opt out is very easy I don't have a problem with the concept. But that isn't the issue that is causing most angst, it is what happens to those who opt out. There are some, amongst them commenters on Longrider's blog and on the original CiF piece that prompted the debate, who seem to think that those who opt out should be vilified and not allowed to be the recipient of organs.  There are others who think that opt outs shouldn't be available and we shouldn't have any say in the matter. To which the answer is, if that is your argument do not claim to be using Nudge. Why people would want to opt out out of organ donations is there own choice, even if its for some daft religious ritual it is none of our business and we should respect that choice and not hold it against them when it come to medical treatment.

And this is the problem with Nudge. It has been taken on by politicians and the righteous to further their own aims and prod us in to doing things we don't want to do, even if they would be better for us. Nudge is fast becoming prod and even shove and it looks like we are going to have to start applying Jefferson's maxim to Nudge:
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


  1. "Prod" = genius.

    The problem is that in many of these things, the pol's are plain WRONG.

    e.g. if you want to save for your retirement, the best thing you can do is pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible, live within your means and use spare cash to buy shares or just save up cash (or, if you are so minded, get into buy-to-let).

    The worst return on investment is handing over money to insurance companies.

    And we know that all these rules on 'safe level of alcohol consumption' are complete and utter nonsense, whereas I suppose having more organ donors is probably a good thing for society as a whole.

  2. Good resume - and ta for the link. I object to opt out as being discussed because, again in the CiF comments, you see a mindset developing. This is; those who want to opt out must tell the state that they do not want to donate. To which my response is; the decision is nothing to do with the state. I should not have to inform them if I do not wish to donate.

    Yes, nudge is rapidly becoming a poke in the kidneys and I object.

  3. Mark,

    Funnily enough that is exactly what I did and now at 54 I don't feel any pressure to find work since I was made redundant 16 months ago.

    Although I do have some pension funds, because this was the only way to get the employers pension contribution in a couple of the jobs I had.

    L, I support that argument because I believe we would be on the slippery slope to compulsion very quickly. Yes I know the logical fallacy point, but this is CiF, cheerleaders for Fabianism, and eventually we will have another Labour government and they have already shown their colours.

  4. I was given a copy of nudge by my leftie brother-in-law just after it came out. Now, having read it with my libertarian antennae waggling vigourously, I have to say I could not find anything very objectionable in it.

    The crucial difference, as you rightly point out is that 'nudge' can very quickly become 'prod' in the hands of the authoritarian left.