Nudging: Can Reform Make a Better Society? A Response to Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie (by Roland Boer)

Symposia

. . . It all sounds so beneficial, benignly urging us towards a better life and perhaps even a better society. The problems with ‘nudging’, however, are significant, although I restrict myself to the key ones: it misses the dialectic of nature and nurture; it misses the very conditions under which nudging take place; and it lacks a proper sense of the role of reform.

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, from a conservative standpoint, was from Hunter Baker and Micah Watson.  Our second, here, from a Marxist standpoint, is offered by Roland Boer.

To ‘nudge’ is to push one gently to make a decision that is more to one’s benefit. A drink without sugar rather than one loaded with the white death; walking up the stairs rather than using the elevator; natural cooling rather than an air conditioner – the possibilities are endless. This is how behavioural economics would have us understand nudging. Given that our decisions are always constrained by a multitude of social and cultural factors, why not reconfigure those factors to help us choose what is better rather than worse for us? It all sounds so beneficial, benignly urging us towards a better life and perhaps even a better society.

The problems with ‘nudging’, however, are significant, although I restrict myself to the key ones: it misses the dialectic of nature and nurture; it misses the very conditions under which nudging take place; and it lacks a proper sense of the role of reform. These points arise in response to the post called ‘Human Freedom and the Art of Nudging’, by Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie. They argue in favour of nudging and the insights of behavioural economics, suggesting that it gives us more freedom rather than less, especially the freedom to reshape the conditions under which we live.[1]

Dialectic of Nature and Nurture

Let me begin with the good point that Mathewes and McRorie make. They argue not merely that we are all conditioned by our social, historical and cultural context, but that we can also shape that context. Well and good, but they are by no means the first to make such a point. Marx already provided a much more dialectical version over 150 years ago: ‘circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances ’(Marx and Engels 1845).[2] We may be conditioned by our circumstances, but we – and those who have gone before – create the circumstances under which we are conditioned. This argument relieves us of the interminable and futile debates over nature and nurture. It is not an either/or option, with some asserting that boys are conditioned to choose blue objects of a mechanical sort, while others assert with equal vehemence that they do so because of the essential nature of boys. Instead, the nature in question is one that has been produced by its own nurturing; so also – and dialectically – is the nurturing we undertake determined by the nature so created.

The classic example is of course the difficult task of creating a socialist society, especially for people so accustomed to the useless lives under capitalism. As Lenin and Mao said time and again, seizing power in a revolution is the easy part; constructing a communist society is far, far more difficult. Here the ‘education of desire’ plays a role, usually needing both carrot and stick. Once again, the dialectic mentioned earlier comes into play. In the conscious effort to construct socialist societies, innumerable changes need to be made, conscious changes designed to redirect human desires, if not to change human nature itself. At the same, those changing conditions produce human beings who can then see more clearly what needs to be done to introduce further changes.

Changing the Coordinates

That brings me a more substantial problem with the argument by Mathewes and McRorie: they miss the proverbial forest for the trees. With their comments on Kellogg’s cereal packets and government programs, they simply do not see the socio-economic context within which they develop their position. I mean capitalism, of course, the context within which nudging plays its role. Nudging seems insightful at first sight, for it challenges one of the doctrines of neoclassical economics, that of the rational homo economicus. Neoclassical economics would have us believe that we always make a choice for our benefit, weighing up the pros and cons. Nudging challenges this assumed rationality, suggesting that we usually make choices based on irrational motives. In other words, homo economicus would not last one day in the real world.

Yet, the whole idea takes place within a specific economic context. It assumes that we can reform the system, little by little, so that it works more to our advantage. But what if we wish to change the coordinates of the system itself? Will nudging do the trick, reforming one part at a time until capitalism is no more. That would be a Bernsteinian argument, in which one gently persuades everyone that capitalism is a bad idea and that socialism can arrive quietly when everyone sees how good it really is.

The Place of Reform

Let me close on a slightly different note. Thus far, I have characterised nudging as a blinkered form in incremental reform – ‘tinkering with washbasins’ as Lenin used to call it (Lenin 1906) – and I have clearly preferred a more revolutionary approach. Yet that is both unfair to reform and operates with a potentially unfruitful opposition. Reform does have a place, especially when seen in the light of the larger goal of changing the coordinates of existence (or revolution). The difference for me is that the revolutionary position remains primary, for only then do the various little reforms make sense. But there is a catch, for so often reform runs counter to revolution, for the reforms in question – nudging – actually serve to shore up a system that is itself unacceptable, and that a revolutionary position seeks to overturn. So why persist with reforms that do so? Brecht has perhaps the best answer as to the paradox as to why a revolutionary may also support reforms that prolong the system in question. It comes from a poem called ‘A Bed for the Night’, which was penned during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

Roland Boer


[1] One cannot help noticing that the argument by Mathewes and McRorie is a very American one, for it is targeted at those who see governments engaging in nudging – nanny states – as infringing on human freedom.

[2] Marx makes this point repeatedly. For instance, ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx 1852). Or, ‘In the act of reproduction itself are changed not only the objective conditions, … but also the producers, who transform themselves in that they evolve new qualities from within themselves, develop through production new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs, and new speech’ (Marx 1857-58).

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