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It Matters Who Is Doing the Nudging: A Response to Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie (by Hunter Baker and Micah Watson)

We would like to begin with agreement on something fundamental. The team of Mathewes and McRorie are surely correct about the persistence of nudging in our lives. We are nudged by the cereal company that pays to have its product on the top shelf. The little tables at the end of aisles in Barnes and Noble are miniature subdivisions with real estate sold to publishers. Those tiny neighborhoods of books are nudges.

Editor’s Note: A month ago, Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie of the University of Virginia posted a thought-provoking essay on “Human Freedom and the Art of Nudging,” exploring objections to the use of behavioral economics in public policy.  We thought the issues raised in the essay warranted further discussion, so we have invited a range of contributors to weigh in with critiques over the next week, with a rejoinder from Mathewes and McRorie to follow.  Our first response is from a “classical conservative” standpoint, by Drs. Hunter Baker and Micah Watson.

We would like to begin with agreement on something fundamental.  The team of Mathewes and McRorie are surely correct about the persistence of nudging in our lives.  We are nudged by the cereal company that pays to have its product on the top shelf.  The little tables at the end of aisles in Barnes and Noble are miniature subdivisions with real estate sold to publishers.  Those tiny neighborhoods of books are nudges.  Indeed, we are nudged almost continuously by other persons and institutions.  Those who cannot tolerate all the nudging or are too sensitive to it end up becoming hermits.  To be social is to be nudged as we attempt to influence each other in a wide variety of ways which are more or less subtle.  Despite our agreement with the authors about the near omnipresence of nudging in our lives, we think they have too easily dismissed concerns about government—particularly the federal government—as the nudger.

The essay is largely directed toward rebutting the more libertarian view of government (government as protector rather than procurer of collective good) espoused by Richard Williams of George Mason’s Mercatus Center. We took special note of the authors’ contention that Williams’ view “would be profoundly alien – if not antithetical to the beliefs of – founders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.”  Such a claim seems too strong.

While the founders would not characterize government’s charge as protecting consumers per se, the federal government’s role was surely regarded as more protective and negative than activist.  Those founders certainly would have been aware of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the best-selling and ubiquitous American revolutionary tract.  In that document, Paine described the difference between two main fields of human endeavor.  The first and primary of those is Society.  Society is the voluntary sphere.  A man very quickly realizes that he can attempt to build a house by himself and perhaps spend years in the effort or he can enter into a series of agreements with other human beings and be sitting in his living room warming himself by the fire much sooner.  Because men and women almost naturally realize how good it is to work together, they voluntarily combine their efforts in a wide variety of contexts ranging from families all the way to formal enterprise.  In the absence of wrongdoing, the government need not be much involved.  The second sphere, according to Paine, is government.  Government is the involuntary sphere.  It engages in coercion because it must do so.  Some human beings will do wrong and such an entity must exist in order to restrain and chasten them.  Paine’s distinction between Society and Government fits pretty well with the idea of government advanced by Richard Williams, and complicates characterizing Williams’ view of individuals as atomistic self-sufficient homo economicus actors.

In addition, we might look to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, which was surely influential with Jefferson and the founding generation and remains so.  Locke’s human beings come out of the state of the nature in order to secure the enjoyment of their natural freedom.  It is the state’s protection of that freedom, echoed by James Madison in Federalist 10, which essentially warrants its existence.  On this reading it is fairly simple to see the purpose of the federal government in the light within which Richard Williams placed it.  Why empower a prince if not to bear the protective sword?

Governmental employment of behavioral economics might cause one to think of Benjamin Constant’s reflections on modern liberty, as well.  He thought the Rousseauian “liberty of the ancients” permitted the existence of a government power that is too comprehensive.  In return for the right of participation in forming the general will (the authors here put a great deal of emphasis on the modern analog), Rousseau’s citizens accept a very complete authority over their lives.  Interestingly, Constant encouraged the legislators not to be so ambitious as to work toward the happiness of men.  Rather, he asked them to confine themselves to “being just” and to leave our happiness to us.  A government too eager to shape its people through nudging may stray too far over the line of “being just” and into the realm of our happiness.

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.

This is not to say that there is no role for nudging from government, but two considerations bear keeping in mind. First is the lesson from the Catholic notion of subsidiarity, one reflected in the practice if not the explicit constitutional theory of  the founding generation. Political problems are best addressed, insofar as possible, by those responsible for the common good, those closest to the communities they serve. For it was local and state governments that enjoyed police powers to protect health, safety and morals, whereas the federal government was restricted to acting on enumerated powers. If government is to take an active role in nudging toward bran flakes as opposed to a more sugary alternative, and we are dubious, perhaps it is best addressed at the state and local level. Washington has more pressing concerns.

Second, given the coercive power wielded by governments, the political power to nudge is different in kind from that found in businesses and other social entities, and so it should bear a different burden. Those public servants who propose policies for our good should be the most accountable for their choices, rather than bureaucrats who do not stand for election. The choice of who influences us is usually not, pace Mathewes and McRorie, between a Madison avenue advertising executive whom we will never reach and a responsive public official. The choice is between the messages of businesses we are free to reject (and go instead to a rival) and the nudges of unelected bureaucrats whose record of late with regard to consumer service has been less than stellar.

In his 2007 book Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government, Charles Fried told the story of Edmund Gosse, an Englishman who grew up with a highly religious father.  Gosse’s childhood was dominated by his father’s choices.  As a young adult, he decided to break away a live a different life in accord with his own vision.  Fried’s point in including the account of Gosse’s life was to underscore the difference between control exerted over an individual by family and church and the control a government is able to bring to bear.  Human beings can generally walk away from even some very strong influences in their lives such as parents, siblings, and religious affiliations—even cereal choices—if they so desire.  The influence of a sovereign government cannot really be avoided other than through immigration.  It is not easy to tell one’s government to take a flying leap.  Of course, in a democratic society it is possible to attempt to affect the decisions of one’s government, but as long as one is on the wrong side of the majority such efforts are likely to be unavailing.  The answer, then, that such nudges are of little concern because our government is theoretically accountable to us is not as satisfying as the authors seem to think.


Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is dean of instruction and associate professor of political science at Union University.  Micah Watson, Ph.D. is director of the Center for Religion and Politics and associate professor of political science at Union.

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