The notion of libertarian paternalism entered broader public consciousness with the publication of the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein (Yale UP, 2008). Grounding their ideas in the emerging field of behavioral economics, the authors described a mechanism for the promotion of positive social change through the use of indirect suggestion and positive reinforcement (a sort of soft paternalism) without limiting freedom of choice (libertarianism). In contrast to the standard view of neoclassical economics, which is predicated on the assumption that individuals make rational decisions, behavioral economics recognizes that our decisions are constrained by choice architectures – the ways that things are presented to us. For example, the location of goods on store shelves and at the ends of aisles influences our buying decisions. The nudge principle suggests that, if we want people to behave in a particular way, then we need to construct choice architectures so that positive outcomes appear more desirable, but are not forced upon them.
In an article that evaluates efforts by the UK government to implement policies based on the nudge principle, Jones, Pykett, and Whitehead (Progress in Human Geography, 2011, 35.4: 483-501) explain that these policies have arisen from the recognition of the difficulties governments face in trying to address a plethora of social ills. These include increasing levels of personal debt, a myriad of health issues such as addiction and obesity, the demise of the family, increasing social unrest and violence, and global issues like climate change and environmental degradation.
Jones et al. identify four ways in which nudge initiatives can be carried out. First, the spatial arrangement of the environment can provide greater exposure to desirable choices, while keeping less desirable choices out of sight, thus linking good behavior to least effort. Think of the way Ikea stores are laid out, so that customers are guided along a predetermined path that causes them to pass by all the merchandise in the store, eventually arriving at the cashiers. Second, choices can be provided at opportune times, such as promoting fitness and better eating habits at the beginning of a new year, hoping to take advantage of the tradition of making new year’s resolutions, and capitalizing on the guilt that many people feel from overindulging during the holidays. Third, initiatives can also attempt to shift people toward making more rational choices. Voluntary enrolment schemes, such as pensions, savings bonds, and organ donation have usually relied on opt-in selection, whereby individuals must make a conscious decision to familiarize themselves with the program, fill out a form, sign their name, and so on. The natural tendency to procrastinate or simply avoid dealing with such matters means that too few people actually take part. However, if individuals were automatically enrolled in such programs, then the same human weaknesses would lead to much greater levels of participation, as few people would make the effort to opt-out. Finally, choices can be presented as community challenges, or through association with the values of a particular group (e.g., parents, cancer survivors, ethnic minorities), such that selection or participation becomes part group identity maintenance. The initiative becomes part of what is normal for us, whoever we are.
One of the major criticisms levelled against government efforts at libertarian paternalism is that, in psychologizing the state and society, policy implementation is grounded in a process of infantilization – treating citizens like children. In the face of almost too many choices, our inability to handle the freedom we expect and demand, leads to situations where our actions (inactions) demonstrate all too clearly that, in fact, we are hapless creatures – perpetual victims of our anxieties and insecurities, our whims and sense of entitlement.