Nudges: Good and Bad

In response to:

It’s All for Your Own Good from the October 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

I am most grateful to Jeremy Waldron for his generous and clear-headed review of my books Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism and Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas [NYR, October 9]. Waldron worries that nudging poses a risk to autonomy and dignity, but it is important to see that nudges are meant to promote both of those values. Disclosure of relevant information (about the terms of a school loan or a mortgage, for example) is hardly a threat to human dignity. When people are asked what they would like to choose, their autonomy is enhanced, not undermined. (Active choosing is a prime nudge.) A GPS certainly nudges, but it does not compromise what Waldron favors, which is “a steadfast commitment to self-respect.” Waldron is right to worry about the risk of manipulation, but the whole idea of nudging is designed to preserve freedom of choice, and in that sense both autonomy and dignity.

Cass R. Sunstein
Robert Walmsley University Professor
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jeremy Waldron replies:

I appreciate this clarification. Many nudges simply involve an improvement of the decision-making environment and of the information available to choosers. Professor Sunstein is right that there can be no objection to that. But in his book, the term “nudge” also comprises attempts to manipulate people behind their backs, using their own defective decision-making to privilege outcomes that we think they ought to value. I think both of us should be concerned about that and about a world in which that more sinister sense of nudging becomes a widespread instrument of public policy.