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A response to the responses; or, A note of clarification about nudges, paternalism, and agency

We were happy to have received these provocative responses to our original piece, and appreciate the chance to extend the conversation. We hope that in what follows we adequately answer some of the concerns raised by professors Vallier, Boer, and Baker and Watson about our original essay, and advance discussion on two levels.

Editor’s Note: Over the past couple weeks, we have hosted three responses to a thought-provoking essay by Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie on governmental “nudging” and human freedom.  We are grateful to them for offering a careful and thorough response in this post and a second installment forthcoming Friday.

We were happy to have received these provocative responses to our original piece, and appreciate the chance to extend the conversation. We hope that in what follows we adequately answer some of the concerns raised by professors Vallier, Boer, and Baker and Watson about our original essay, and advance discussion on two levels: practically, with regard to the use of behavioral economics to build nudging into regulation, and philosophically, with regard to the account of human freedom that is appropriate to public discourse about decision making regarding well being, both in markets, and with regard to policy.

            We want to begin with some more individual comments about each of the responses, then, in a second post, go to the heart of the objections they raise together.



            Vallier states that we get neither libertarianism nor Richard Williams right, and he suggests we re-educate ourselves on the details of both.  For our part, the question we’d ask is whether his picture of libertarianism is sufficiently precise.  He defines a libertarian as “one who affirms the importance of private property rights, is skeptical of human political authority, advocates the widespread use of free-markets, has a strong belief in the salutary effects of spontaneous order, and holds to a kind of individualist cosmopolitanism.”  While this is a seductive definition—a kind of “libertarianism with a human face”—it describes a tent so big that, until the last item, it is hardly distinctive of libertarians.  Reinhold Niebuhr was no libertarian, but affirmed all of this except the “individualist cosmopolitanism” (and his worries about the nation state at least give him some purchase on something like cosmopolitanism); and a thinker like Edmund Burke, hardly a libertarian, would fit even more neatly therein.

What Vallier’s description misses (or, at least, incompletely grasps) is the anthropology that we judge to be at the heart of the libertarianism that ties Williams’ political concerns with a certain view of what is going on in markets: a descriptive account of the person that focuses on unconstrained and self-determined choice as the fundamental nature of human agency, and which leads to a normative case for organizing the social order so as to maximize this type of agency. He seems to reject this as part of his own “Christian libertarianism” when he says he is a libertarian, except that he does not accept “moral individualism” (sic!). In the absence of that “moral individualism,” though, holding to the list above does not fundamentally differentiate someone from a large number of Christian thinkers who are not libertarians.

Vallier is a stronger libertarian than his list leads on, however, as he reveals in his later judgment that political authority “is ineffective and unjustified.” Well, as J.L. Austin once said, there’s the part where you say it and the part where you take it back; but here the part where Vallier takes it back—in his moderate definition of libertarianism above—comes before the part where he says it—where, that is, he sounds more typically libertarian. In contrast, we think political authority can well be justified, even if it must be justified again and again; and it certainly can be effective, when properly policed by a careful citizenry. We will return in the next post to the larger ramifications for the conversation of nudging of this core philosophical disagreement.



Boer’s response moves us from the specific question of nudging to the much larger questions about contemporary economic life. Did we miss the forest for the trees?  Did we not see that the problem is capitalism, as opposed to capitalism’s malfunctions?  In the interest of keeping this exchange on topic, we’ll save that forest for another day. That said, we appreciate the revolutionary spirit!  More seriously, Boer is certainly right: A critical social analysis of our entire political economic system is a promising way to keep in mind the big picture issues of agency, freedom, and human flourishing.

Boer finds our essay lacking “a proper sense of the role of reform,” and asks, “Will nudging do the trick, reforming one part at a time until capitalism is no more?” While Boer’s response unfortunately moves at too high a level of generality to engage many of the specifics of our arguments about nudging, this question does usefully point toward a concern we imagine those on the farther left raising about such policy conversations in the first place: What if policy conversations in general are just so much flourish on a broken system, and nudging amounts to nothing more than arranging the proverbial deck chairs? Although we are not at all this despondent about our current economic order, we do find this a useful line of questioning. Cast in a less systemic register, we might ask, what if policy conversations still miss something critical because of what economists call “regulatory capture,” in which a regulatory agency acts not on behalf of the public interest, but is “captured” by private interests? The conversation we have been having thus far assumes that government action is distinct from market action in all the ways that we would hope—that it is the result of collective action performed by elected representatives on behalf of the wider public, and with the common good in mind. What if, however, our political system is already so influenced by private interest and corporate lobbying that these assumptions are naïve? (And, it should be noted, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission certainly suggests that this worry is not baseless.)

While such questions are theoretically upstream, as it were, to the conversation over nudging, they are quite fundamental.  We welcome Boer’s reminder that our current political-economic debate is remarkably narrow, when compared to debate of even a few decades ago.  We admit we are not quite as sad about the eclipse of Marxist theories as Boer suggests we ought to be, but we do wish that all that space to our left were filled with serious thinkers like Boer, who press their case seriously and critically on all of us to their right, “moderates” and libertarians alike.  The absence of a serious policy-level Marxist or post-Marxist critical theory voice is one we lament, and wish someone would supply.


Baker and Watson

There’s a lot in Baker and Watson’s piece to discuss; for example, we would love to second (if modify) their suggestion that reading Constant will help us all with these issues. But for brevity’s sake, we focus on one thing.    As they put it:

The underlying question raised by Mathewes and McRorie is the extent to which government’s mandate includes the shaping of the very people who give it its warrant in the first place. One need not hold to a hyper-libertarian view of the person as a completely self-made and autonomous being impervious to all outside influences to have concerns about government employed behavioral economics aimed at our good. One need only question the assumption that a government official is that much better situated to know what our good is.

It may be helpful to first note that we are not primarily recommending that government “nudge”.  Rather, we are saying that nudging is inescapable, and we wanted to use this recognition to provoke a larger conversation about agency in contemporary life, using as our provocation an untenable account of market empowerment set alongside a caricature of our disempowerment vis-à-vis government. We think that public use of behavioral science has, so far and by and large, been for “the good,” and we note actual uses in our next post, in order to clarify that nudges are not dreamt up in a private room by unaccountable administrators (wait, are they lazy and inefficient? or demonic?) to promote secret ends.

More to the point of their objection, though, we don’t in fact claim that administrators have any special epistemic privilege, and are “better situated to know what our good is.” Further, that debate is not directly relevant to the one on nudging, given that nudges are used now in legislation that is still itself proposed by “public servants,” not “bureaucrats who do not stand for election.” That is, nudging is used toward visions of “our good” chosen by accountable public bodies. As a result, the conversational move to shift attention to the specter of unaccountable government power is a red herring; it certainly comes at the expense of the larger philosophical issues that the social science and practice of nudging brings up, including the interesting way that they can destabilize some of our cherished caricatures of the influence of government, and of life in a capitalist system.

Of course we agree that nudging should be done carefully and cautiously. But we disagree with Baker and Watson on their quite severe reading of the implications of the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. We too would affirm something like a doctrine of subsidiarity, which proposes that decisions concerning the common good should be done by those best positioned to identify them, those at the right “level” of the social order. Baker and Watson, however, intend it to resist the Federal government on a host of things (as best as we can tell; their failure to be precise here somewhat inhibits the conversation). The disagreement on this matter may be illustrative of our different approaches.

Consider, as seems a reasonable construal of their views, if they would argue that subsidiarity militates against any nudging (or regulation) of the food markets at the federal level; after all, we eat locally, not globally. Now, the American food system (that is, our agribusiness market) is not a patchwork coat of local food systems. Much of our food is produced far from where we live, then processed and packaged at another place, and only then delivered to shelves in our neighborhood – all alongside marketing campaigns that are at least national in scale. Generally, the right level at which to deal with this supply system is, unsurprisingly, the level at which it exists. The mind quails at the prospect of imagining the bureaucratic proliferation were each individual state—or locality, as they suggest?—to have its own laws and regulatory bodies as regards food. (Incidentally, the placement of nutritional information on food containers—a federal law—is an example of nudging that we appreciate, and can’t imagine being accomplished on the local level.) Any invocation of the principle of subsidiarity for regulation ought to incorporate the obligation of prudential judgment of cases, and accordingly attend carefully to the size and influence of existing markets being regulated. In short, we’re not convinced that subsidiarity offers a robust critique of either nudging, or the presence of nudging in federal policy.

Alongside the subsidiarity, a bit of libertarianism seeps into Baker and Watson’s rhetoric at points, such as when they cue up the familiar talking point against “unelected bureaucrats whose record of late with regard to consumer service has been less than stellar.” Two things come to mind here. Firstly, as scholarship has repeatedly shown, most public servants in government work very well, and government systems are actually more efficient, and more conducive to innovative and free markets, than a wholly anarchic economic system would be.[1] Secondly, if the impulse of this comment was to imply that private “consumer service” is inherently superior to that of public bodies, we would remind them of the spectacular collapse of the international finance system in 2008, which was in no small part due to a failure of bureaucratic regulation of private consumer service—and which was saved from even worse catastrophe by government intervention. Regardless of whether one holds a more minimalist or more substantive vision of the purpose of government, extreme rhetorical skepticism regarding government action is misleading, if not paired with (at least a) modest recognition that examples of market failure abound—from very large-scale ones like climate change (assuming our interlocutors accept that humans acting in intentional concert—that is, through governments—can or should address this), to small-scale ones (such as can be addressed on the level of behavioral economics).  And such market failures cannot be solved by more markets, but by something other than that—something like people working not out of an aim of self-interested profit maximization, but out of aims indescribable in such terms.


That’s enough for now. Too often libertarianism and its fellow-travelers in public discourse traffic in unexamined assumptions (especially about freedom and markets) and unconscious prejudice (particularly against government). Part of what we wanted to overcome in our original post is the easy appeal to what “everybody knows,” because it’s often “common sense” (which is frequently neither common nor very sensical) that blocks more nuanced analysis of what is going on in our world. Our interlocutors’ responses seem to us to contain more than a few appeals to those received assumptions, and the presumption that our views are going to fall into the traps that those reflexes set. We hope we have shown that it’s possible to walk across the ground a bit more carefully than that.  In our next post, we’ll try to suggest a series of concrete claims from which the conversation may be more helpfully advanced.

Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
Christina McRorie is a doctoral candidate in religious studies and a doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

[1] Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State (London: Anthem Press, 2013) is only the latest empirical contribution to this scholarly literature.

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