The subject of Wednesday's Moral Maze was Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. They argue (compellingly) that it would be nice if we could set society up so the things that 99% of people want to do were the default setting, but if you don't want to do them, it would be a piece of cake to opt out. For example, companies in the US (the authors are from America—this is important) might offer free health insurance but you have to opt in to claim it. Thaler and Sunstein suggest changing things round so you're automatically given the insurance but can opt out if you want.
Who could complain? Pretty much nobody, right? And who could complain at the idea of having sunbeds switch themselves off after 10 minutes in case you fall asleep under them, or driving license renewal forms that ask you if you would like to give your organs to someone who needs them should you perish prematurely?
I consider myself to be basically a libertarian and I can't muster up any arguments against these things, and this really is as far as Nudge (the book) goes. The authors spend several page fretting over whether governments have the right to force motorcyclists to wear crash helmets, for God's sake. These people would be considered virtually anarchists in Britain.
All this seems to have passed a lot of people by. It nearly passed me by. As I mentioned in my review of it in August, the very fact that 'nudging' has been adopted by the likes of Julian Le Grand was sufficient to put me off it for several years. I'm very pleased I finally relented since it's a good addition to the library of behavioural economics. It's also 95% libertarian and only 5% paternalism.
Whilst I would never be so indelicate as to suggest that not everybody involved with the Moral Maze on Wednesday night had read the book, the whole format did rather hinge on its co-author Richard Thaler being an authoritarian wolf in libertarian sheep's clothing.
This was apparent from the choice of guests. With the panel broadly splitting in half, with Portillo and Phillips roughly in the libertarian camp (yes, very roughly - don't write in) and Taylor and Longley roughly in the paternalism camp. Since Delingpole and I are fairly obviously with the libs, and the lady from the Roy Castle Foundation with the paternalists, to even up the numbers the other witness would have to be a paternalist.
The trouble was that the other guest was Thaler himself and—as very quickly became apparent—he is anything but. Accused of trying to change people's goals, he said:
"I don't think we could have possibly been any more clear that that's completely wrong."
Lest that still not be clear enough, the sublimely incredulous Thaler responded to further insinuations of social engineering by saying:
"Absolutely not. There is nothing that could be wronger than that."
Listening in the green room, I said to James Delingpole that I didn't think they were quite going to get the argument they wanted out of this discussion. (Towards the end of the show, Michael Portillo drily noted that Thaler "didn't stand for some of the things we thought he stood for.") Thaler went on to strongly deny wanting presumed consent for organ donation, and when asked about plain-packaging, explained once more that he didn't approve of bans at all.
There may be tea-partying parts of America where this sort of talk is considered paternalistic, but then Americans take their liberties a bit more seriously than we do. By the standards of British politics, let alone European politics, Thaler would be classed a loony libertarian. Nevertheless, the format of the show assumed that Delingpole and I would violently disagree with him and his supposedly authoritarian-by-the-back-door ways. This we could not do. Delingpole praised Thaler's sensible book and lamented the way it had been perverted by politicians. He also quite rightly picked Matthew Taylor up on his elitist assumption that the world is divided up into "sophisticated and intelligent" people who are capable of making informed decisions and a lumpen mass of imbeciles who are constantly manipulated by malign institutions for profit.
When it was my turn to be interrogated, Longley wondered with exasperation why I was so opposed to Nudge. I wasn't, I said, although by this time I was tempted to add "... but I can pretend to be if it would help things." Some readers of this blog noticed that I was interrupted quite a bit by Longley and Taylor (the latter chaired The Spirit Level debate at the RSA), something which is more apparent to me listening back than it was at the time. I can't say that I thought the questioning was any more aggressive than in the average Moral Maze. The whole point is to have a bit of an argument and for all three of us, this was more than a rhetorical contest.
Longley believed that the government had decided that smoking was abnormal and anti-social and was going to do something about it. Essentially, he espoused absolute democracy, in which once a government had been elected, it had a mandate to do whatever it wants. Obviously I disagree, since I believe in liberal democracy, which accepts that since democracy is imperfect, elected governments should work within limits (eg. unwritten limits in Britain, written limits in the USA). In any case, using the absolute democracy argument is particularly weak when talking about contemporary Britain where you have a government nobody voted for, made up of two parties which promised less regulation and the overturn of the tobacco display ban.
Anyway, you don't need me to explain what was said as you can listen here, but I hope that the message came over on Wednesday night that Nudge does not in any way justify the kind of lifestyle policies that all the main British political parties have been going along with in recent decades. The Nudge philosophy is totally at odds with every public health initiative that goes beyond giving accurate advice and information to people who want it.
'Nudging' is not a cute name for 'do what we say'. As Thaler and Sunstein consistently stress, any nudging must have a cost to liberty that is close to zero and a financial cost that is close to zero. In other words, goodbye smoking ban, farewell minimum pricing and adios fat tax.
If the coalition is serious about cutting regulation, adopting Nudge would be a sound textbook to work from. But as we have already seen from plain-packaging and the farce of the YourFreedom website, they have no intention whatsoever of doing that. So, if anyone in politics ever gets round to actually reading the bloody book, it much more likely to be farewell Nudge.