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Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

  • May 14th, 2008

I’ve ordered this book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

From reviews,  I suspect it will supply a major missing link in popular and political acceptance of economic insights – validating our disbelief  when urged to believe that laissez faire market choices always optimise community welfare, despite our personal experience to the contrary in our own lives. We can all think of external disciplines that have helped us to help ourselves.

Freedom’s cause has not been well served by denying the common sense that there are often better outcomes when authority nudges people away from self-damaging behaviour. Nudge will actually strengthen freedom as research supports persuasive mechanisms, but also urges opt-outs and other means of preserving choice despite official preferences. If extremists are intellectually marginalised,  trashing genuine freedom of choice may become less respectable.

I suspect this book will not sell as well as Freakonomics, but it could capitalise on the interest created by that book. It  could have more practical influence (if only because the authors are thought to advise Barack Obama).

I met Cass Sunstein in 1992, introduced as “our pet lefty” when we met at the University of Chicago staff club. I attended one of his ‘work in progress’ sessions (though I can not remember the topic). He would have no reason to remember my time there, but I but remember his sharp questions of Stephen Shavell, a visiting Harvard professor, about a then forthcoming paper on ‘efficient punishment’.

The dedication of that University’s professors to maintaining an intelligent interest in their colleagues’ work well outside their specialty interest, despite ideological differences, was absolutely inspiring. I went there with the honorary title ‘visiting fellow’ and came back considering more time in academia. That interest wilted promptly when told by the friends at VUW  of the PC intellectual scorched earth in their common room.  I hope that is changing as a generation rolls over, but have heard few encouraging reports.



Cass Sunstein is very sharp and very productive. His interests are so broad that it’s pretty much impossible to say that Shavell’s work would fall outside of Sunstein’s main or specialty interests.

Check out the podcast from Cato on the Nudge book. Sunstein talks for 25 minutes followed by some really good critics. The first critic, Terry Chorvat, about nails my problems with Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism”. The domain for policy intervention on such grounds is potentially unlimited, and lots of areas seem rather heavy-handed.

We can easily imagine, for example, an appropriately-motivated Health bureaucrat wanting to set the default option for us at the supermarket so that we’re each given on our way in a pre-filled shopping cart that’s “appropriate and healthy” for our income and family composition; we’d then be free to add or subtract items as we went through the supermarket, but the default would be there. I find moves in such directions repugnant.


I forgot to add the link to the Cato book forum podcast, probably because your anti-spam code killed the message the first time and I had to re-type. It’s here:


Will Wilkinson’s comments are trenchant. Why are all the examples that Sunstein uses ones that move us away from choice preservation? We can imagine things going either way: so, I could sign a waiver that I could never make a claim on ACC and thereby get my ACC premia back or, I could sign a card agreeing that I’d never be eligible for public health care in return for having that portion of my income taxes refunded and being allowed to take drugs. If we’re serious about a libertarian paternalism, the default could be that I’m prohibited from taking drugs, but could sign some informed consent waivers allowing me to do so (not something I’d be interested in personally, but still). If we can’t imagine government moving to reinstate some of our stolen choices under a switch to libertarian paternalism, then we oughtn’t make the switch.

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