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Review of Nudge in Economics and Philosophy

Mark D. White

In the latest issue of Economics and Philosophy (26/3), my friend (and The Thief of Time contributor) Joel Anderson has a review of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's Nudge, a topic of some interest to this blog and to me specifically (having written on libertarian paternalism on several occasions, most extensively here).

It is an exceptionally extensive and insightful review; Anderson appreciates the benefits of the general concept of nudges but has reservations about their conceptual foundations and justifications. In particular, he calls attention to the sense one gets that practioners of libertarian paternalism are relying on agents' cognitive shortcomings rather than helping agents overcome them or find alternative decision-making processes that will arrive at their ideal choices more often (see pp. 374-5).

In the last sentence of the review (p. 376), Anderson cautions that "much work still needs to be done in identifying the principles for implementing nudges appropriately and in a way that cuts out the lingering paternalism." I'm afraid I'm not optimistic; if one regards the essence of paternalism (as I do) to lie in the substitution of policymakers' judgment for that of individual agents themselves, then nudges cannot avoid being paternalistic as long as they attempt to steer decisions toward what the policymaker thinks is best for the agent (e.g. eating fruit rather than cake, enrolling in retirement programs upon employment, etc.).


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