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The Nudge Factor

Urbanna, Va.— There is a new idea afloat these days on how government might work. It is explained in “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Cass R. Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and author who was President-elect Barack Obama’s colleague for many years at the University of Chicago. The book, co-authored by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, explores a new, more palatable pathway connecting government control to the free market system.

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by Mary Wakefield Buxton
The idea is simple. Government will not (at least not in the initial stage of implementation) coerce its citizens to obtain the behavior it desires from its citizens, but merely provide a well-meaning “nudge.” Haven’t heard of it? Well, get ready. Because the Nudge is coming for dinner and it appears he could be staying for a very long time.

So how does Nudge work? Simple. Nudge assumes most people will be ignorant, apathetic (if not downright lazy) and not take care of the multitude of important decisions in life.

Rather, people will be more on the order of the first two little pigs that built houses of straw and sticks, and not like the correct little pig that did the right thing; worked hard until he had built a secure brick house and went on to live his life wisely.

The brilliant part of the Nudge concept is hardly anyone will realize it is in force. For example, in today’s world some employees can enroll in a company retirement plan, which automatically will put aside certain funds for retirement. But an employee must sign up for the program. Under Nudge, the employee is “automatically enrolled” in the program and would have to sign up to “un-enroll.” Nudge knows very well that people must save diligently for retirement, and that most Americans may need a little nudge to do so.

Nudge can also be used for retrieval of much needed bodily organs. A totalitarian government might simply nationalize all human organs and declare them natural resources and property of government. But Nudge, aware that this would outrage many citizens, would simply tweak the present system. As it stands now, one must officially sign up to donate organs. But under Nudge, one could be automatically divested of urgently needed organs if, God forbid, there is an accident and a citizen is declared brain-dead. Unless, of course, that person had previously taken the personal trouble to “un-donate” his organs.

Of course, the Nudge is not really a new idea. Rather, it is more subtle than earlier government plans to remind citizens to do the right thing. Earlier Nudges were much more obvious. For example, Americans were exposed to Nudge every time they heard that delicate “bong-bong” when they started the car, but had forgotten to fasten seatbelts.

Other early sightings of Nudge have been evident with taxes applied on “sinful” commodities such as cigarettes and alcohol, and other luxuries. It might even be said there is no greater example of a government use of Nudge other than special product and service taxation.

There is good rationale for government nudging citizens in right directions. For example, on the horizon stands a national health system where government will pick up the tab for health care for every American. If government does this, if it assumes lifelong responsibility for the care of its people, should it not expect Americans to stop unhealthy lifestyle behaviors?

Why should government, for instance, tolerate smoking when smoking leads to emphysema and lung cancer? Why should it allow the consumption of alcohol when drinking leads to cirrhosis of the liver among other serious health conditions?

Not to mention a high fat diet. Many Americans are presently grossly overweight, which has added billions in costs to present-day health coverage programs. Why would government allow such foolish diets to continue unless it wanted to bankrupt itself?

The truth is if Americans want benefits that government might provide, then citizens will have to accept the consequences. The deal should contain a new nationwide commitment to living healthier lifestyles.

Should we expect more “bong-bongs” in our lives as Nudge expands in growing areas of our lives? Yes. For just think of the many ways that Nudge can work.

If Nudge can automatically enroll its citizens in retirement and organ donation programs, it could also prescribe a side of spinach to every meal eaten in a restaurant. Don’t laugh. It could very well be that the golden arches at McDonald’s might turn green. Of course, Nudge won’t insist that people eat any spinach that would automatically be served. Customers might “un-order” his spinach and then order French fries. It will just take a bit longer and be a bit more inconvenient to do so.

The mind boggles what Nudge might do. It is such a brilliant plan because it is based on the simple idea that people don’t, won’t or can’t do what they should do. It uses human nature as a tool for control. It shifts responsibility to us to take action not to do the right thing.

Of course, Nudge could get tough. If Americans insist on bad behavior, it could apply some really prohibitive taxes. It is quite possible, for example, that Americans have not yet seen any real tobacco taxes until what Nudge may one day introduce to the market.

One must ever remember that Nudge will always mean well. Nudge knows what is best for us. It also knows better than we how life should be lived. Alas, Nudge suspects that we cannot possibly make the right decisions ourselves.

There is no free lunch. As badly as human nature might desire such, there will always be major consequences whenever one is offered.

That’s the big problem with free lunch. We might not like the food that is served. But, by then it could be too late to call in the cook. ©2008

www. marywakefieldbuxton.com

posted 12.11.2008

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