By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008
ISBN # 978-0-300-12223-7
293 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2011

This book has an almost inexplicably passionate impact on me, leaving me with heated disagreements, yet realizing that about 95% of the book I find to be intelligent, useful and probably persuasive to most. How to grasp this 5% of difference and the heat and frustration it generates in me – that will be my task. The authors claim they are presenting a theory of “libertarian paternalism” as a way to deal with both political and corporate behaviors. They want to give us a system to maximize our desires that is less painful and more successful than what we typically use in both politics and business. This will be a system of “nudges” toward the things we really want in life.

They immediately recognize that the wedding of “libertarian” and “paternalism” will seem to most as a contradiction. However, the libertarian aim they have is to live in a world where more choices are offered to us and many fewer prohibitions. On the other hand the paternalism is that scientifically guided choices done by the paternalistic scientists, will offer “us” choices which will guide “us” to choose the things we really want after all. “La dee da” as Annie Hall would say. The trouble is that my disagreements are with their fundamental theses and arguments, not with the nitty gritty notion of this or that nudge.

Thus, they say, there is no contradiction in these two concepts which are often seen as virtually polar opposites, the strict libertarians often being on the right wing of the Republican party and the most paternalistic of us being on the left wing of the Democratic party, if either group is really comfortable at all within American politics. The secret and novelty of it all is “the nudge.” This is some relatively minor and painless option, discovered through painstaking research by economic scientists. The nudge will save us all.

To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.”

In a later paragraph they defend the “nudge” principle with:

Libertarian paternalism, we think, is a promising foundation for bipartisanship. In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice, we will be arguing that better governance requires less in the way of government coercion and constraint, and more to the way of freedom to choose. If incentives and nudges replace requirements and bans, government will be both smaller and more modest. So, to be clear, we are not for bigger governments, just for better governance.

They state their nearly utopian view of government:

One of our major goals in this book is to see how the world might be made easier, or safer, for the Homers [refers to Homer Simpson] among us (and for Homers lurking somewhere in each of us). If people can rely on their Automatic System without getting into terrible trouble, their lives should be easier, better, and longer.

What follows in the book, the great bulk of the book, is the attempt to demonstrate that by figuring out modes of nudging us toward what we really want, they will achieve the wedding of these two seemingly contrary notions, and will actually help to maximize our individual wishes in both the political and consumer worlds. Wheee.

There is much in their analyses to be praised, and much to be learned. But, first a bit more of the over-arching view within which they do these praise-worthy analyses.

They are fairly clear that they are primarily talking about people within the American political and economic systems, yet one of their first assumptions is a generalized account of all human beings. There are, they claim, two fundamental ways to go about making choices. One can do it as an Econ or as a Human. An Econ is one who carefully examines the situation of one’s choices with reason and science and makes a decision which will maximize one’s desires. A Human is one who makes choices more on the basis of passion, and often with little to no serious intellectual investigation of the choice, perhaps just trusting in some advisors or just choosing in the passion of response to offerings, ads or personal desires. They then, rightly I think, declare that in fact the overwhelming bulk of our decisions are made as Humans and not as Econs. Further, and here however, I think not quite as rightly, they seem to claim that people may even be classified as Humans or Econs on the basis of how they typically choose. Those who typically decide on carefully analyzed and tested data are Econs and those who more typically decide on gut-level feelings are Humans. Lastly, they tend to think that there are many many millions more Humans than Econs “out there.”

This is extremely reminiscent of The Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoyevsky’s novel THE BROTHER KARAMAZOV. It is Spain in the 14th century and Jesus seemingly has come back to Spain and is performing miracles. The masses flock to him, fall at his feet, willing to do whatever he tells them. But, The Grand Inquisitor has this Jesus-figure arrested, interviews him, though the prisoner never once speaks a word, and this is the rub – decides he is, indeed, really Jesus come back to Earth. Nonetheless, the Inquisitor tells Jesus to go away or die again. Only the Inquisitor can run the world. The others are not fit. The Grand Inquisitor explains a theory of human nature that seems extremely similar to that of the authors of this book under review, but the Inquisitor calls what the authors call Econs, “a hundred thousand sufferers” who will do all the hard work of decision making for the Humans, the “thousands of millions,” who will not – who will rather live by their guts.

Unlike the seeming appearance of our democracy, the Grand Inquisitor and his fellow “humanists” will make the paternalist decisions for the masses, and then burn at the stake those who disagree.

Clearly the authors of NUDGE would utterly deplore the strategy of the Grand Inquisitor, but they, on the other hand, will use the magic of science to learn the proper “nudges” to achieve the perfect society without violence to the masses, rather, helping everyone to have what they really want in the first place.

There is a third way, I think to look at this distinction the authors call the Econs and the Humans. From the ancient Greeks on there have been those, like the Econs, who thought as Socrates thought that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And there have been, just as both the authors and the Grand Inquisitor see, the great multitude who will have relatively little to do with the “examined” life. I am in full agreement with them on this point.

Thus where is there any disagreement?

I agree that:

  1. The authors think that people can be divided into roughly two classes, the Econs and the Humans.
  2. That the Econs’ strategies for how to choose in life is generally more successful for the stated aim than that of the Humans.
  3. That it is likely that this system of “nudges” would help people maximize their aims and desires more than our current “Human” systems.

If that is the case what is the problem?

For me there are three main difficulties: the difficulty of the notion of what is it that we WANT , secondly who is this WE? And finally for whose benefit are these nudges offered?


Who is this “we” of whose wishes they speak?

The authors speak of what “we” really want. I don’t believe there is such a “we.” Rather I see us as wide variety of people, at times wanting the same things (and virtually all the case studies in the book are from that list of things where it does intuitively seem that the great masses would want the same things) yet at many other times we DON’T want the same things.

I see this dichotomy manifested in two ways. One is that sometimes a large number of individuals want different things than other individuals. I think of an example the authors use – maximizing retirement benefits during the period when we are working and contributing to those programs.

I am one who chose to live a very simple economic life and thus I don’t need a great deal of money (relative to my society) to live the sort of life I really want to live. I have very little interest in money in general seeing it as a necessary evil and the tool I do have to use to get the goods and services I want. I try to minimize its impact on my life.

Thus when I was younger and my university offered a retirement benefits package, I joined it and took the mode of choice that involved the LEAST risk (and thus the least return in most cases), and thus I had to spend the LEAST amount of what I would consider wasted time in such a decision.

That choice served me well. I think the authors would object to say: They would agree and that they would have programs to “nudge” me toward such a retirement plan with maximum choice, least amount of work, and maximum chance that I would get this safety I want rather than maximization. But I think they deny that in the text, since THEY (paternalistically) CHOOSE for me that what I really want is maximum return (they say all want).

This gets to the heart of my disagreement. I think that there is generally not a “we” to design choices for, but we citizens are extremely diverse and have differing values and desires, and the notion that some scientists working out of their “ideal” of what I want is very often to build a set of nudges that will nudge me away from my own desires. I just flat out reject their notion of a “we.”


Who’s good in being chosen? The “MY” or “THE GROUP” or “THE MOST DISADVANTAGED?”

The authors seem to primarily focus their notion of the “we” to be the good of the particular individual. How to be given choices that will allow ME to best choose what I want FOR MY LIFE.

There seems to be an assumption that the “good” we each seek is the good of the self, or at least, the best interests of the group as a whole.

However, many of the choices I want are not so much choices for what’s best for ME, nor even what is most useful for the society as a whole, nor even what is what MOST people want, but I often want to choose what is best for those who seem to not have as much as I have in my life. I want to choose political, social and economic choices which ensure that the underclasses have the most generous safety net possible within the society, and to aid oppressed groups in an advancement toward equal treatment.

Given those desires, the “nudges” of their work, as exemplified in the text, are not nudges that would get THIS “I” what he wants at all.


My last objection is that the “nudges” system cannot be trusted in a market economy and democracy such as ours. There are too many conflicts of interest for any proposed “nudge” to be believed. The corporations are primarily interested in profits and would do or say anything in support of a “nudge” if it would create profit. The evidence of this is overwhelming and has led within our democracy to constant cries for oversight and rules and such, which the corporations both fight and highly successfully evade.

The politicians are no better, perhaps worse. We constantly see them serving special interests and see and hear constantly the absurd and lying arguments they will use to support policies (as they would nudges) which serve the interests of those who support them in their reelection campaigns.

This just seems so blatantly obvious. Every night on the evening news we hear of the politicians fighting over public policies, and what we are given are not the brilliant, careful and detailed arguments of Thaler and Sunstein, but political crap, with few details, emotive language, all appealing to the Human in us, not to the Econ, nor with the sense of the Econ.

We certainly can’t rely on the mass of HUMANS to see through this. Humans, on the authors’ own account, will not learn about or be persuaded to “nudges.” They don’t do this, but, as the authors say, act on the basis of emotion, immediacy, tradition, and the lies of both commercials and politicians.

Thus for their system to work we would need some sort of a radical anti-democratic philosopher king (in their language, the university’s program of nudge research) to run the country.

I think that is very unlikely to happen.

My objections do not suggest in the slightest that I think what the authors have presented are not marvelous and worthwhile insights. I really do think that. However, I think their attempt to think they can interject this material into the political world with some utopian outcomes is the sheerest rot.

They convince me they are very bright people in seeing useful and desirable strategies for choosing goods and services, but they also come across as such utopian and naïve political thinkers as to be nearly laughable.

This is a rather old debate for me. It didn’t arise for me as a question over how to change society, but in how to change my own life. Like the authors I realized that I tended to live much like other people out of habit, disinterest in alternatives and a bit of laziness. I was fairly much a Human in their language.

But, I began to think more carefully about my life, again on their view, move toward being a Econ. My analyses suggested that while I desired not only to change my life, but greatly improve the quality of life for others, I decided that realistically I wasn’t going to be powerful enough to tackle the latter, but at least I could do more in the former – changing my own life. I began that process, made what I thought was significant success. I began to write and speak about it and live it. Some others began to notice and I was invited to give lectures and such, eventually publishing an essay on the subject I was interested in:

That essay was not as sophisticated as this Thaler / Sunstein book in its strategies, but it did suggest what one might call some “nudges” for those wishing to simply their own lives, and freeing up both time and money to work more directly to help others.

That paper DOWNWARD MOBILITY AND THE OTHER is on my web page.

Some of my friends and critics were critical that the focus I was suggesting was too much focused on the individual and that while it might well ameliorate my own life and that of my family, it wouldn’t do much for others. They encouraged me to adopt a great political focus to try to change certain rules and practices of society via the political process.

My own analysis of the seeming hopelessness of the political situation about which I talk above, led me to stick to this strategy of focusing on my own life first and foremost. I spelled out that position in a second essay,

The Primacy of Personal Lifeform; A Challenge and Invitation

The title suggest the thesis, that if I focus on building my own life in the form I would widely suggest for others then both by example, and the freed time an economically simple life would allow, I would have both time and wealth to try to use that to help other people achieve better lives.

While I still like the thrust of those two essays toward the individual as the center rather than trying to change or regulate government or corporations as Thaler and Sunstein do, I think their notion of the “nudge” especially and with some concrete cases would be far superior to any strategies that I developed. Thus I am convinced of their more scientific approach to figuring out nudges, but in no way convinced that the primary focus of a success social plan will be by independent scholars developing the ideas and expecting them to be implemented in any significant manner by either government or industry.

One might object to my position that I seem in favor of their scientifically generated nudges, but the nudges can only be offered by government and/or the commercial sector. I think, that on their own argument this is not so. They rightly divide our beings and tendencies into the Econ self and the Human self. When I try to write about these issues, I try very hard to step outside my Human self and to do serious work, that is to face ideas and arguments with reason and care, behaving like an Econ. So it is the Econ who can develop careful nudges, much more unlikely that the Human will. But since were are all to some extent both, it isn’t inconsistent for my Econ self to offer to my Human self nudges arrived at by careful analysis of the sort that the bulk of their examples demonstrate.

However, until the Humans are “nudged” or transformed into thinking and acting like Econs, that system won’t work, and Thaler and Sunstein don’t think that will happen anytime in the foreseeable future.

The scholars working on these plans in the university are relatively independent of any other motives than what their studies show (unless, of course, those studies themselves are funded by either government or corporation, in which case they may well have conflicts of interests). As I read the Thaler / Sunstein book I see scholars seeking truth as best they can, and I am much impressed they do it much better than my weak attempts in my much less scientific manner.

However both corporations and government officials have other interests. Profits and markets are of great interest for corporations and re-elections and ideological beliefs interest politicians, and even the political process in its best form often has to give up much of what the scientific evidence would point to as a nudge, in order to balance conflicting interests and ideologies.

They admit this, but having admitted it seem to simply ignore it and go right on as if they hadn’t even announced that caution.

However, they do address some of the concerns of those, like me, who wouldn’t much trust the government to nudge me well. One of their proposals is a principle of transparency:

In its simplest form, the publicity principle bans government from selecting a policy that it would not be able or willing to defend publically, to its own citizens.

But to think that this helps much doesn’t seem to fit with their own notion, which I think is correct, that most of us are acting most of the time as Humans, not as Econs. The “defense” would only matter much to those acting at the level of Econs.

It might be useful at this point to indicate an important feature of their system of nudges: the default option. It is at this spot of the default option that their paternalism operates. Recall they want to offer a group of options to maximize choice and those choices must also be non-mandatory and easy to reject. Yet, the paternalistic part is that in fact there must always be a DEFAULT OPTION. That is, that if the citizen does not decide on anything, then their will be a default option that kicks in. The default will be the option the scientists believe is the best of the options. Life must go on, so by not choosing some other option, you will get the default, and the default option will be the one the designers of the option thinks is the best for all.

It is precisely at this default option moment that I think there would be the most mischief possible with the politicians and the commercial world. Credit card companies are already notorious for having “default options” that are dramatically opposed to the interests of consumers and year after year politicians refuse to stop the predatory practices. On their side, we Humans continue to act in the main as Humans and allow ourselves to be disadvantaged by these so-called choices.

The authors arrive at their conclusion:

In this book we have made two major claims. The first is that seemingly small features of social situations can have massive effects on people’s behavior; nudges are everywhere, even if we do not see them. Choice architecture, both good and bad, is pervasive and unavoidable, and it greatly affects our decisions. The second claim is that libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron. Choice architects can preserve freedom of choice while also nudging people in directions that will improve their lives.

However, there is a MAJOR third claim which they don’t choose to announce:

This form of utopian nudges can be incorporated into both government and commercial practice in a reliable way.

It is that last claim that I reject. They rightly recognize there will be people like me, and they even cite BOTH areas where I would object: that we can’t trust government or the commercial world not to use nudges against the citizen or customer’s interest and in their own interest, and secondly, that we often need government regulation that is much stronger and less easy to avoid than a nudge.

They accept these things are possible and then utterly ignore them, with just a sentence, saying in effect, but if you aren’t such a cynic as these folks, then we have a great system for you.

The tools of this “choice architecture” may be very useful, I even suspect they would be, however, I come away very skeptical that given the untrustworthiness of either government or commerce, there is much hope for a successful system of nudges from either of those realms.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett