Reasonable Libertarian Worries About Nudging: A Response to Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie (by Kevin Vallier)


In a recent article defending a “nudge” approach to public policy, where behavioral economics is employed to provide mild modifications of individual preferences and behaviors in ways that serve said individuals’ good, Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie take Richard Williams to task for his “libertarian” criticisms of the nudge approach. I’m rather sure that the libertarianism they attribute to Williams is neither necessary for his argument or a remotely accurate portrayal of libertarianism as a political philosophy.

Editor’s Note: Last month, 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, from a Marxist standpoint, was offered by Roland Boer.  Here a libertarian, Kevin Vallier, responds.

In a recent article defending a “nudge” approach to public policy, where behavioral economics is employed to provide mild modifications of individual preferences and behaviors in ways that serve said individuals’ good, Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie take Richard Williams to task for his “libertarian” criticisms of the nudge approach. I’m rather sure that the libertarianism they attribute to Williams is neither necessary for his argument or a remotely accurate portrayal of libertarianism as a political philosophy. But rather than make these rather obvious points (which Hunter Baker’s response touches on), I thought it might be more constructive to outline a genuinely libertarian attitude towards the whole nudge paradigm.

I take libertarianism to be a family of political theories and principles with common characteristics, or perhaps common emphases on at least six key ideas. Libertarians emphasize the importance of private property rights, both morally and economically. It is critical for practically all libertarians that individuals, families and voluntary associations have the right to acquire, accumulate and transfer private property freely. Libertarians share a broad-based skepticism of human authority. They tend to hold the powerful to a high degree of critical scrutiny and in many cases deny that ordinary people have any duty to obey them. More moderate libertarians may not deny political officials authority entirely, but will instead encourage that we realize that such figures are at best necessary evils. Libertarians stress the many virtues of free markets. That is, they encourage the widespread reliance on the market mechanism, understood in terms of the use of free-floating prices and the system of profit and loss, to allocate goods and services. Markets are both more efficient than government regulations or government control, but more suitably to peaceable living and respectful of liberty and basic human rights. Libertarians stress the importance of spontaneous order, or the idea that most of the order found in human social life, the good order, is the result not of conscious human design, though still the product of human action. The best, most functional social orders are typically not those we design from the top-down, but the ones we allow to grow within a broad social and legal framework. Libertarians are also individualists. This is at least an ontological claim: all that exist are individuals and voluntarily created groups. There is no such thing as “society” as an abstract entity. Libertarians are individualists in that they hold that individuals are the primary bearers of rights. And they are political individualists, holding that political institutions are duty bound not to trod on individual rights. Finally, libertarians are typically cosmopolitan in that they place relatively less importance on social membership not voluntarily taken on. Nationality is typically not a good justification for immigration restrictions. Race is typically not a good justification for coercive affirmative action policies, etc.

So a fair and un-biased picture of libertarianism is this. A libertarian is 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. Not all libertarians have all of these features. As a Christian libertarian, for instance, I reject the moral individualism of many libertarians, and I believe in collective bodies, like the Church. But I think we are right to be skeptical of human political authorities when we find them, even if they in some sense have God-given authority. And I am a strident cosmopolitan (think the Good Samaritan) and a believer that God’s will is best expressed through spontaneous order processes rather than the cruder and more corruptible top-down hand of government.


But my differences aside, how is a libertarian to think about nudging? She will be skeptical. First, she is likely to see nudging as a violation of the right of private property because it involves regulating the use of private property in business. She doesn’t care much for political authority in the first place, both because it is ineffective and unjustified. Further, she recognizes that the nudgers are themselves flawed individuals, the same sorts of folks that may need nudging. Who is to say that in the end they’ll be better decision-makers? Indeed, if behavioral economics shows that humans are irrational, surely these effects will taint the nudgers too. And in any case, where do the nudgers get that sort of authority over individuals, authority sufficient to deliberately alter their preferences? Democracy can’t be the answer: democratic rights aren’t so strong that they can pre-empt an individual’s right to direct her own life in her own way. Can we really by vote give someone the moral authority to alter our preferences? The libertarian will also worry that nudging will breach the free-market, making it less effective, and prove to be one more failure to recognize the salutary effects of spontaneous order. Nudging seems to flout the libertarian’s commitment to individualism as well, as it involves giving government too much power over individual choice. (Cosmopolitanism doesn’t seem to enter the picture.)

So these are the concerns that a reasonable libertarian will raise. I share nearly all of them. Now let’s turn to Mathewes and McRorie’s critique of Williams. For the sake of argument, let’s just replace Williams with the reasonable libertarian as I’ve described him. Surely the interesting point is not whether Mathewes and McRorie have answered Williams but whether they provide an adequate response to generic libertarian concerns. The sad thing is that they have not done so, not by a long shot. Let me proceed bit by bit.

Mathewes and McRorie claim that Williams is committed to the view that human preferences and choices are formulated in a vacuum, independent of all external factors. This, they say, is an illusion: “our agency is always being shaped by external factors.” They then launch into attacks on “homo economicus” and how poorly it models human beings and standby conservative and progressive claims that no one is truly “self-made.” But any reasonable libertarian can hold that people are not truly self-made. She can also deny that we’re merely motivated by economic factors or that our choices are formulated in a vacuum. I don’t know of any libertarian who made that claim and many who sharply denied it, among them Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek.

The reasonable libertarian, I expect, will simply reply that we can hold both that our preferences are deeply dependent on the external environment and that it is prima facie objectionable to give government the power to manipulate them. That’s what I think, anyway, and I like to think that I’m a reasonable libertarian.

Mathewes and McRorie then argue that because there is no such thing as environments that don’t shape who we are that we might as well have the government do the shaping. Our choices are determined by our “choice architecture” which is something humans decide on, deliberately or not. We can take the design of our institutions into our own hands via government and so do better what we’re already committed to doing anyway.

Just because something is not under my control, however, doesn’t mean I can’t have an objection to government engaging in such control. I didn’t control my upbringing, my parents did, but I can still object to government being my parent. I didn’t control my eating habits as a child, my parents did, but I can still object to government controlling my food choices. The fact that my choices are externally determined simply doesn’t imply that government should take on that external determination. Any reasonable libertarian will see that. Their concerns about political authority and awareness of the power of spontaneous order will make that clear.

The reasonable libertarian’s insights will also help her to see through the false dilemma the authors then present us: “the issue is whether we will choose to consciously and deliberately shape those forces, or rather let them be determined by purely economic factors, as is the current status quo.” The choice is “between having the nudger be responsive to political leaders whom you put in power and the nudger be, say, some advertising executive over whose decisions you never have any say.”

Any libertarian will recognize this as a false dilemma because they recognize the importance of the norms set by civil society, sets of voluntary institutions that are neither profit-seeking like firms nor coercive like governments. We can appeal to all sorts of non-legal conventions and norms to control the excesses of market morality. It is rather remarkable that two scholars of religious studies couldn’t conceive of this option.

Second, given the libertarian’s understandable worries about excessive political power and the glorification of the state, she will simply point out that the fact that I have one vote out of hundreds of millions to choose among a small handful of candidates every two years is a far cry from being ruled by political leaders that I put in power. At least the business executive has the threat of losing profits, one that can be immediately felt. The reasonable libertarian will argue that Mathewes and McRorie don’t really understand how markets or governments work. They fail to see the ways in which markets are input-responsive social systems and governments frequently are not.


I’m sad to say that the authors’ claims degenerate from here into insults levels against the libertarian political tradition. Mathewes and McRorie state that if the libertarian picture of the world were true, “libertarianism would be attractive across societies as their natural default position. Yet it has rarely emerged except when it has been the beneficiary of enormous financial subvention by wealthy proponents.” This is hard to take seriously. Progressive democratic ideas haven’t been attractive across societies as their default option either. In fact, from what I can tell, just about nothing other than hereditary monarchy has been attractive across societies if we’re sufficiently inclusive.

Further, the idea that libertarianism has been brought about by the secret machinations of robber barons is little more than conspiracy theorizing. What examples of libertarian societies are they even talking about? And who are these secret monsters?

As a libertarian, I recognize one challenge to my view is that there haven’t been any libertarian societies. I have to base my advocacy on moral principles and case-by-case empirical arguments for markets. The comparison class the authors have in mind seems to me fantastic.

The authors end by saying this,

If reflecting on this state of affairs brings up uncomfortable questions about whether there is such a thing as unconditioned consumer agency at all, and about how markets work in the first place (are “slotting fees” a good idea? do they make cereal markets less “free”?), so much the better.

I disagree here as well. Mathewes and McRorie have compounded standard argumentative fallacies with strawman insults against libertarianism. Libertarian thought deserves a more respectful engagement. The reasonable libertarian I describe deserves to be treated better. Perhaps the authors could spend less time defending irresponsible power and more time studying a respectable tradition of social and political thought.


Kevin Vallier is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green University and a regular contributor to Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  He is the author of Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation (Routledge, forthcoming 2014).

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