Nudge Theory

In an article for the Telegraph, Philip Johnston explains about Nudge Theory. Nudge theory was developed by the American academic Richard Thaler and has been put into practice by UK prime minister David Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team at a tune of £500,000 a year.

The basic idea is that government can, and ought, to nudge us to be better people. “Effectively,” Johnston explains, “it is social engineering without anyone noticing, a nanny state where nanny stays hidden behind the curtains. Rather than ordering people around or leaving them to behave in ways that will damage their health or wealth, the state can gently manoeuvre them into behaving sensibly.”

David Brooke’s advocated something similar in his bestseller The Social Animal, which I reviewed here, and which also captured the imagination of Britain’s impressionable Prime Minister. Consistent with Nudge Theory, Brooke’s recommends that the government goes about making us better people with a kind of side-ways approach, prodding us in the right direction or propping up the web of relationships in the private sector. He uses the phraseology “limited but energetic” to describe the government’s role in enhancing social mobility and promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

There’s some definite value to this way of thinking, but also some legitimate concerns. C.S. Lewis raised some of these concerns in an article for the Observer in 1958. Lewis remarked:

The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.”

Brooks realizes with a consistency that is almost frightening that if the government’s vocation is to promote human happiness, then our whole lives become the business of the state right down to the synaptic connections controlling the neurons in our brains. “The unconscious, he says, “needs supervision.”

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