Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, has a column excoriating recent Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler, behavioral economics in general, and the idea of nudges in particular. He writes
…thousands of people die every year in car accidents that would not have been fatal but for the light-weighting of vehicles to meet the government’s fuel economy rules (called CAFE standards). In this case, Thaler’s “nudge” philosophy is actually killing people every day.
But wait, there’s more. Obama’s war on fossil fuels” was based on the assumption that people need to be “nudged” to buy renewable fuels, even though such fuels cost five times as much as fossil fuels and are unreliable. Obamacare, Common Core curriculum mandates, and a massive tax code that uses thousands of exemptions and credits to “nudge” us into doing or not doing thousands of different things are more examples of public policies justified by “behavioral economics.”
I am actually sympathetic to the idea that ‘nudges’ can themselves be dangerous) see Kevin Bryan’s excellent post at A Fine Theorem). However, the items Bast mentions are in no way nudges. They are heavy-handed regulation and tax incentives. They are not based in behavioral economics, but in the paternalistic traditions that have been with us as least as long as government and almost certainly longer. Curriculum mandates are about as ‘nudge-y’ as arranged marriage.
What would the nudge version of the policies look like? Nudging folks toward fuel economy would be a policy that requires automobile dealers to give customers a test drive in the hybrid version of a vehicle, unless the customer specifically requests the non-hybrid version. Nudging curriculum standards might require that homeschool parents be sent a Common Core curriculum guide by default, unless they select some other option.
The idea, is that you make the default or low attention choice, the choice that policy makers would prefer. This can still go awry. The more you think folks make decisions without thinking about them, the more critical emergent standards and norms are to the functioning of society. Replacing those with intentional nudges weakens the selection mechanism process which those norms and standards evolve.